This piece was originally published in Classical Post.
Virgil Boutellis Taft's playing throughout his debut orchestral album with The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Incantation, is brilliant, effusive and gripping. He glides above the orchestra while maintaining a core to the tone and unfolding gorgeous intricate phrases. But it is the depth of his relationship with the material, unique combination of works and history behind why he programmed this CD the way that he did that make this album exceptional. History had silenced Virgil Boutellis-Taft's family violin. Through Incantation, the violin sings again in an unfurling of seemingly contradictory emotions which are all centered around melancholy.
AN OPPORTUNITY ARISES PERFORMING AT CARNEGIE HALL
French violinist Virgil Boutellis-Taft splits his time living between Paris and New York, depending on his performance schedule. Looking at said schedule, he performs quite frequently in New York, where you never know who is in the audience. When Virgil gave a recital of music from his first CD Entre Orient & Occident at Weill Hall (Carnegie Hall), head of the American Friends of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Barry Bloom took notice. Bloom invited Virgil to give a series of private recitals at their residence, where Bloom introduced Virgil to James Williams, the Managing Director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. After hearing Virgil play, Williams invited him to perform the opening season concert and record a CD with the RPO. This recent release, Incantation featuring Virgil Boutellis-Taft and the RPO, is Virgil’s debut orchestral recording. And it’s stunning.
The combination of works selected for Incantation is unique and personal to Virgil. “I wanted to record this program for a long time,” says Virgil. “I started discussing the program with James and he was very enthusiastic and thought that the program was meaningful.” Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s James Williams was happy that it wasn’t the traditional orchestral debut recording of two concertos.
INCANTATION: THE HOLY AND THE DEVILISH
Incantation as a term is a double-edged sword. It can express a sung or chanted bewitching spell or something performed during ritual or prayer. The selections of Incantation address these literal interpretations of the term as well as expressing what Virgil calls a “love incantation”. On a fundamental level, the holy is portrayed in Kol Nidrei and Baal Shem, the devilish in Danse Macabre, and a seductive singing is showcased in the Chausson, Vitali Chaconne, Tchaikovsky Serenade and Yumeji’s Theme. But the devil’s shadow lingers in the holy, or at the very least there is looming mourning beside the light.
“Of course I recorded them because they are all very dear to me. What they have in common is that they are all very charged emotionally. They are all in minor key actually, there is hope but not that much. They feel spiritual and solemn,” says Virgil. “It’s different forms of incantation. For me there is the holy incantation and the devilish, the diabolical that has nothing to do with spirituality. The Vitali Chaconne is a cathedral of emotion. On the other side you have Danse Macabre, especially this arrangement by Paul Bateman, where we get the harmony of the original with orchestra but Paul adds the flexibility and virtuosity of the piano/violin version by Saint-Saêns. So it’s a mix of two originals. I think it’s like fireworks.”
BAAL SHEM, NIGUN AND KOL NIDREI
The album showcases the various forms of Incantation, and Nigun and Kol Nidrei are pillars of the album. Paul Bateman also did the arrangement of Kol Nidrei. The arrangement is unusual, as it removes the second part, but Virgil shared that he kept only the more traditional part that he hears at the synagogue each year for Yom Kippur.
Virgil commonly performs Baal Shem as a triptych, but only includes the second movement of the work on the album. It’s a work that he has performed for a long time, since he was a teenager. “I play it everywhere I go. I think the most important time I played it was in Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, on the day of commemoration for those who never came back from the terrible journey. When I play this piece, it’s a tribute to my grandmother and to my aunt who disappeared in those appalling times. My grandfather was a violinist and a doctor. I don’t only play it for those in the audience. You play it for everyone, but also for those who are not here anymore. History silenced the family violin, as it has silenced many families, and it has now resumed its song through me. That’s why those two pieces are so important to me.”
Knowing Virgil’s relationship with the works Baal Shem, Nigun and Kol Nidrei reframes how to perceive the album. I asked why Virgil decided not to create an album featuring only Jewish composers (side note: Bruch who composed Baal Shem was Protestant) and he emphasized the importance of showcasing the range of experiences enveloped in the term “Incantation”.
Some works on the album are more obviously tied to the term “Incantation”, like Baal Shem. The album showcases the various ways that Virgil relates to this term, resulting in the reframing of classic works in thought-provoking combinations. To him, the term is linked to showcasing a full range of emotion that always contains a hint of melancholy. Vitali Chaconne is the perfect embodiment of this.
Virgil’s agility as a violinist prominently shines through in the showy and stunning Vitali Chaconne. “Have you heard a version with organ? You can listen to Heifetz’s wonderful version with organ! It makes sense with my idea of a cathedral of emotion,” says Virgil. “With the organ it adds to the arch. Heifetz made an arrangement that adds a little more cream and sugar.”
Virgil’s recording of Chaconne is significantly slower than that of Heifetz, but perhaps the weight of the organ permits a faster tempo while maintaining a sense of the brooding that can be easily lost with orchestral accompaniment. Even with the slower tempo, Virgil’s recording feels decidedly more uplifting and hopeful than Heifetz’s rendition. Like Virgil said, hopeful, but not that much.
PERFORMING WITH ORCHESTRA
One element unique to performing with orchestra that is lost with organ is the sense of the soloist pitted against the backdrop of many and the sense of urgency in the recording process itself. When Virgil arrived to record, there was no rehearsal. “It can get a little tricky, it creates urgency and makes you surpass yourself,” says Virgil. “You have to get it together. Urgency gives stamina.”
Performing as a soloist is a challenge physically and mentally; the individual makes their voice heard despite greater forces. Given the context of Virgil’s family and how this album is the re-emergence of the family violin, an organ wouldn’t cut it. It isn’t just the volume in sound from an orchestra, but how an orchestra is a system made up of individuals to create one force. Not one person can be attributed to the wall of sound, they all played their part. And Virgil, like all soloists, fights to be heard, his tone flies above, it does, but there are moments when you hear that there is a struggle. Through it, Virgil sings.
ABOUT VIRGIL BOUTELLIS-TAFT
Hailed by critics as an "outstanding violinist", "of fiery temperament", with "intense, brilliant, sumptuous sound" and "impressive virtuosity", Virgil Boutellis-Taft performs as soloist and chamber musician in major international concert halls: Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall, Wigmore Hall, Benaroya Hall, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Cammilleri Hall, Salle Gaveau, the Phillips Collection, Tel Aviv Opera, and with orchestras such as the Dayton Philharmonic, the Springfield Symphony, the Israel Chamber Orchestra Emeritus, the Mid-Atlantic Symphony, the Sinfonia Varsovia. His album "Between East and West", recorded in 2016 for Evidence Classics/Harmonia Mundi, has been hailed by critics, in particular for its "incandescent intensity".