There is no dress code at Herbst Theatre. But as a place with chandeliers and a shoeshined Steinway piano, where golden art deco pillars intersect a red velvet curtain and a gaudy blue ceiling, it hosts an evening of coastally unaccustomed dress-up.
When the lights dim and violinist Benjamin Beilman walks onstage with pianist Andrew Tyson and an overly serious page turner, there is a thin sheen of potential masked as tension. Silence is dressed in all black. Beilman, 28, and Tyson, 31, have played together for nine years, and tonight is the final recital of a three-day Bay Area run.
On Tuesday, the duo performed in replacement of Armenian violinist Sergey Khachatryan. A four-part program prepared in two weeks began with the first movement of Mozart’s Violin Sonata No. 35 in A major, “Molto allegro.”
There was a brightness to Beilman’s instrument that gave away his age. The piece was alacritous, callow and, to be particularly indulgent, evocative of regal mid-1700s imagery of a young prince performing in a salon during aperitif. In these opening moments, Beilman himself looked so familiarly young, and his playing was light-touched to a point of femininity.
The audience melted away from its dark clothing and became a bobble of shiny, floating heads. This night was an escape from the body, and there was no swaying, no couple making out in the periphery nor faint smell of herb-sweet smoke. There was a suppressed cough and a beam of light refracted against an acoustically engineered wall, a stifled crinkle in a purse.
The printed program of the night was a track of emotions with moments of pause between feels. “Andante.” Pause. “Presto.” Applause. Beilman was performing his character in front of Tyson and the blanket of bobbing heads offstage, and these heads fed off the energy from the stage.
The piece that came next was gritty and more grown. It was a slick of hair mussed up, a hint of dissonance: Antonin Dvořák’s Sonatina in G major. “Allegro risoluto.” “Larghetto.” “Molto vivace.” “Allegro.” Applause.
Beilman’s performance was memorable in its metamorphosis. After a short intermission came the rustic country feel of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 10 in G major. Beilman’s charm from Dvořák was replaced with a shifted playing stance, a sharper profile and the beginnings of a five-o’clock shadow. There was more pressure on the bow as staccato aggressions and foot stomps followed tributes of a boyish legato.
The last piece of the night was a loudly drawn inhalation: Fritz Kreisler’s Viennese Rhapsodic Fantasietta. On record, Kreisler himself played the piece with a subdued maturity and nonchalance that Beilman instead interpreted with all the drama and suspense of a younger, unhurt artist. The fantasietta is nostalgic, and Beilman retained the romance of the patriotic postwar era in which it was written. There was hope in Beilman’s version where Kreisler’s might have found bittersweetness.
This was the highlight of the night. Beilman showed off the extraordinary polytones and whip-fast scales in Kreisler’s composition. There was no question of technical mastery. The real substance was in the emotions that culminated in satisfying triumph. It was exactly the kind of predictably happy ending that gets everyone excited.
A sprinkling of standing ovation instantiated the customary exit and re-entering from Beilman and Tyson, and an encore of Kreisler’s famous and short Tambourin Chinois brought everyone back, this time onto the imperial grounds of a Chinese palace.
What just happened was intimate spirituality found in the classical concert ritual. Outside, the air was biting, and it was surprisingly un-Californian to all the non-Californians who make narratives about California in their heads. Across the street, City Hall glowed red and yellow like a sunset at midnight. Couples dressed in nice-restaurant garb made their way to parking garages. There was still Instagram, indie pop and the Kardashians, and the floating heads found their bodies. Yet it was then that Beilman delivered them, the special hours between today and tomorrow.