Messiah's Return 

click to enlarge art38_lede_violin_148.jpg

Over the past few years the phenomenally multitalented (flamenco guitarist, bouzouki master and genetic psychiatry researcher/professor) Ayman Fanous has organized memorable Richmond performances by great New York improvisational musicians. The Sept. 20 concert featuring violinist Mark Feldman promises to be a brilliant continuation of the series.

Feldman's seemingly boundless virtuosity has made him one of the most sought-after musicians on the scene. He's part of guitarist John Abercrombie's exemplary quartet, frequently works on projects with trumpeter Dave Douglas and plays in a variety of lineups in composer John Zorn's Masada projects. He's also found time to record his own music, most recently on the excellent "Next Exit" (ECM).

He started his career as a commercial studio musician, appearing on hundreds of records by everyone from Sheryl Crow, Willie Nelson, Diana Ross to evangelist Jimmy Swaggart. "I was pretty successful in Nashville," Feldman recalls. "But when I was almost 30, and on the road with Loretta Lynn, I realized that I wouldn't be happy as just a music worker. So I moved to New York."

He jumped all the way into the mid-'80s creative music scene, playing in avant-garde trumpeter Herb Robertson's rehearsal band, landing a position in Mark Dresser's "Arcado String Trio" and starting his long-term collaborative relationship with Dave Douglas. Amid challenging company, Feldman's distinctive attack evolved. "At first I tried to mimic the saxophone, use that intonation, no vibrato. Slowly, I got into the way I play now."

Most contemporary players use electronic pickups, or attach a microphone to their instrument; they can compete with the drums, but amplification smoothes out the subtleties. "Most of the work I do is improvised," Feldman says, "but I practice the same way that a conservatory-trained musician would. I share the same technical basis, in technique, tone production, acoustic projection, as a classical soloist."

He plays powerfully but acoustically using only a stand-up mike, preserving the organic scrape of the bow, the musicality of the wood, all the thrilling complexity of the instrument's wealth of tone and texture.

His skill is complemented by a world-class instrument, a living work of art kept vital over a century and a half by consistent use. Feldman's violin is the "ex-Thibaud Vuillaume," an exact copy of Stradivarius' famed, pristine Messiah. After many years hidden in the hoard of eccentric collector Luigi Tarisio, the Messiah was purchased by legendary 19th-century luthier Jean Baptiste Vuillaume, who masterfully constructed instruments that duplicated it in every detail, including the one owned and played by early 20th-century French soloist Jacques Thibaud. Feldman purchased Thibaud's violin with prize money from the 2007 Alpert Award, an unrestricted $75,000 awarded to "engaged, wildly independent artists."

But a violin, however esteemed its genealogy or magnificent its sonority, is ultimately a tool. Technique, however brilliantly honed, is just a vocabulary of possibilities, how they come together in creative expression is, for Feldman, transcendent.

"My benchmark for a successful performance is the amount of time that I feel that I am in the moment," Feldman confides. "Totally absorbed but without preconception. I'm not thinking, How are they liking it? or What time does my train leave? There's nothing but you, the music and all the time in the world."

The violinist embodies a long tradition. All of the great classical composers -- including Bach, Beethoven and, Mozart — were also great improvisers. Music itself must be deeply rooted in a pure celebration of sound. Feldman's explorations are not only forays to the frontier, but flow back to the wellsprings of sonic expression. S

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