SCSO Concertmaster Bacco Liu Proves to be a Master of the Solo Concert, Too

Te-Chiang “Bacco” Liu, violin
First Presbyterian Church
Sioux City, IA
Sunday, March 8, 2020

The Sioux City Chamber Music Series hosted violinist Bacco Liu as he began a demanding week.  Sunday’s concert was the first of several performances for the Sioux City Symphony Orchestra concertmaster who is preparing for the big Beethoven concert on Saturday, in addition to several weekday concerts for thousands of local students as part of the Carnegie Hall Link Up program.  If Mr. Liu’s attention was divided, it didn’t show; he performed a versatile program of western classics as well as two pieces from his native Taiwan. 

If you’ve been to any recent Sioux City Symphony Orchestra concerts, you may have heard Mr. Liu performing solo passages during a piece like Scheherezade or out-and-out violin solos like the pieces he played last spring in memoriam of a departed symphony patron.  But a concert like this one gives us the chance to get to know him as an artist more directly and intimately.  We get to learn what he likes to play and how he likes to play it, and in neither respect did he disappoint. 

The concert began with Brahms’s Sonatensatz, accompanied by pianist John Walker, who admittedly (and regrettably) gets short shrift in this review but performed well in the pieces he appeared for.  Sonatensatz gave me my first chance to hear Mr. Liu in a brighter voice than I recall in any of his recent SCSO solos. 

Mr. Liu’s unaccompanied performances of Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 1 and Paganini’s Caprices for Solo Violin No. 24 demonstrated his technical mastery.  As someone who is a relative late-comer to classical music—orchestral and chamber—I was impressed to see the versatility a single instrument played by a single artist can achieve.  Mr. Liu’s delivery is decidedly without affectation, which means it is less distracting and almost certainly more honest.  All of the work goes into the music itself. 

Although Mr. Liu doesn’t indulge in the superficial physical flourish when he performs, after intermission I could see him visibly leaning harder and more emotively into his performance of two pieces—“Vagabond” and “Meditation”—by TyZen Hsiao.  Hsiao and Liu are both from Taiwan, and it was clear to me that these pieces, which he may not ordinarily  have opportunity to play, meant a great deal to him.  As I read through the program before the concert, I was curious to hear what they sounded like.  What may have been most surprising to me is how unsurprising—in other words, how un-exotic and how un-foreign—they were.  Of the modern American instrumental music I know, plenty of it is less accessible—and far stranger-sounding—than Hsiao’s.   Good music is good music, no matter where it comes from, and it was great fun listening to a musician I deeply respect introduce me to a composer and whole genre of music I hope to seek out in the future. 

Up to that point in the program, the Hsiao pieces were my favorite.  And then Liu and Walker began Cesar Franck’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major.  In the Franck, Walker on piano finally had the chance to garner some attention.  For short passages here and there the violin goes silent and it was far easier to see Mr. Walker not “merely” as an accompanist but as a fine artist in his own right.  The first two movements Liu and Walker played with energy and excitement.  The second movement isn’t so much aggressive as it is assertive and confident.  Although the third movement slows down and shows its vulnerability, it is by no means weak and retains that earlier confidence and steadiness.  A similar emotional sentiment continues into the fourth movement, but the mood is far less brooding than in the third.  The energy and volume of the Franck rises and falls (and rises again), but the character of the piece never struck me as weak-willed or volatile.  Instead, it suggested—to me—the experience of joys and tribulations foregrounded by a strong sense of self and belief.  It was exactly the kind of musical experience I wanted to be left with as I embarked again into my own life. 

If you are a fan of this type of intimate performance, support the Sioux City Chamber Music Association.  Their March 29 concert features the Sioux Falls Chamber Music Collective.  And if you are a fan of your local concertmaster or the violin in general, make your way down to the Orpheum Saturday night for the Sioux City Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. Seven and Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1. 

Brendan Todt stays at home with his two sons but will soon be teaching at Morningside College. He mows his neighbor’s yard in exchange for piano lessons.