There is no truth to the premise that you have to be German, say, to truly get to the heart of a Brahms piano concerto, or be a Brit to sing the dickens out of a Ralph Vaughn Williams symphony. Music transcends nationalism.
But allow for just a little wiggle room here.
When Francesco Dego – the celebrated 26-year-old Italian violinist who scored a recording contract with the Deutsche Grammophon label when most of her peers were still finishing graduate school – plays Niccolò Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 1 this weekend with the Fresno Philharmonic, you can’t overlook the fact both musician and composer are Italian. (Or, at least, she’s half-Italian: Her father was born in northern Italy and her Jewish mother in New York, but Dego grew up in Italy and never lived anywhere else, so she was definitely steeped in the culture.)
You can’t separate Paganini’s music from his language, Dego says. As we’re all aware, Italians speak with a distinctively musical style, almost a singing quality. It’s not a great leap from that to coloratura, the elaborate style of ornamented runs and trills we associate with 18th and 19th century operatic singing.
For Italians, it’s in the blood.
“He’s been my lucky composer,” Dego says.
She’s made a name for herself in the classical music world bringing the same dramatic quality you associate with opera to her interpretation of Paganini.
The composer, born in 1782, at the height of his fame was a touring sensation and considered the first great violin virtuoso. He was the cultural equivalent of one of today’s pop music stars, and his fiercely difficult pieces created musical fireworks. It was all part of a performance package: his speed, his famed bow tricks, even his exceptionally long fingers. Audiences were in awe of how he pushed the violin to make sounds they’d never heard from the instrument.
Doing a new piece is quite exciting. It isn’t something you can just look up on YouTube and hear other people play. You get to create the performance.
Dego, who made her concert debut at age 7 performing Bach, started studying Paganini’s first concerto at age 14. She debuted it with orchestra at 16.
In 2008, at the tender age of 18, she was the first Italian woman since 1961 to be a prize-winner in the renowned Paganini Competition held in Genoa. She also was awarded the Enrico Costa prize for being the youngest finalist.
The Italian press took notice in a burst of national pride, and she was able to follow up on her success by pushing on with other competition wins and the 2012 deal with Deutsche Grammophon. Her debut album of Paganini’s “24 Caprices” – a series of etudes exploring challenging violin techniques, including furious runs and double-stopped trills – received critical acclaim.
There are other composers in her repertoire, of course. She just completed her final volume of her complete recording of Beethoven’s violin sonatas. Her touring career is blossoming as well, with appearances with some very good orchestras around the world (the Northern Czech Philharmonic, Wuhan Philharmonic, Thailand Philharmonic and the Philharmonique du Liban and many others) and her sights set even higher.
Her Fresno Philharmonic performance isn’t your only chance to hear her perform in the Fresno area. She plays in the Fresno Pacific University Pacific Concert Series in a chamber music event titled “Theodore Kuchar & Friends” Wednesday, Feb. 10.
It promises to be a powerhouse event. Kuchar, the Fresno Philharmonic’s music director, will make a rare local appearance playing viola in a program that includes the Brahms Quartet in C minor, joined by Fresno Pacific’s Walter Saul on piano, Fresno State’s Thomas Loewenheim on cello and Dego. Saul and Dego will play Beethoven’s Sonata No. 8 in G major for violin and piano. A highlight of the evening will be the world premiere of Saul’s new Sonata for Violin and Piano, which he wrote specifically for Dego and this concert.
“Doing a new piece is quite exciting,” she says. “It isn’t something you can just look up on YouTube and hear other people play. You get to create the performance.”
She’s saving the big technical fireworks, however, for Shaghoian Hall when she plays her beloved Paganini. (Also on the Valentine’s weekend program, titled “Bella Italia,” is Verdi’s “I vespri siciliani Overture,” Casella’s “Paganiniana” and Tchaikovsky’s “Francesca da Rimini.”)
The concerto has become one of her signature pieces, and that’s fine with her. She loves bringing Italian passion to her interpretation.
Barely past 25, she’s traveling the world, she recently got married and her career is “going upwards.” She’s enjoying a great moment.
“Playing really difficult music has always been a way to prove to myself that I could do it,” she says. “I’ve always loved having a technical mountain to climb.”
Bella Italia with the Fresno Philharmonic
- 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 13, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 14
- Shaghoian Hall, 2770 E. International Ave.
- www.fresnophil.org, 559-261-0600
Pacific Artist Series
- 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 10
- Butler Church, 4884 E. Butler Ave.
- www.fresno.edu, 559-453-2267
- $12, $8 seniors, $5 students