When Steve Shipps stepped down as concertmaster of the Ann Arbor Symphony six years ago, he’d held the job for fourteen years and helped take the orchestra from amateur to professional status. He’d been with them through the halcyon Carl St. Clair years and the tumultuous Sam Wong years to the start of the golden Arie Lipsky years. For some, his time with the A2SO peaked with his glorious account of Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu’s rhapsodic Second Violin Concerto in 1998. But an injury sidelined Shipps in 2003, and it took years of extensive physical conditioning to get him playing again.
Fully healed at last, Shipps is back, violin in one hand, more Czech music in the other. Not that Shipps had ever really been away: for twenty-two years, he has been a professor of violin in the U-M School of Music. But since he’s playing again, Shipps likes to perform some of his favorite music with one of his favorite pianists, Paul Schoenfield. So for his concert on Sunday, February 21, Shipps has programmed nothing but Czech music. The recital features works by Bedeich Smetana, the father of modern Czech music; Antonin Dvorak, Smetana’s greatest successor; and Josef Suk, Dvorak’s favorite protege.
As his Martinu concerto proved, Shipps is seemingly a natural at Czech music. With his sweet intonation, focused vibrato, and seamless legato, Shipps’s playing has many elements in it taken from great Czech violinists. “There’s a tonal quality to their playing, rich and romantic but not juicy, not Hungarian, not Gypsy, that I really admire,” says Shipps of Czech violinists. He is equally complimentary of Czech composers. “It’s a very rich musical country, but it’s a classical country, and their music’s not heart-on-the-sleeve, not the ebullient romanticism of Tchaikovsky or Mahler. There’s always a reserve in Czech music and a discipline of composition and playing that I treasure.”
Shipps’s February 21 concert will feature Smetana’s From My Homeland, a two-movement work similar in tone but distinct in content from his famous orchestral cycle My Homeland, and Dvorak’s large-scale, deeply felt Sonata in F major. For the cognoscenti, however, the major event of the concert will be Shipps’s performance of three works by Suk, a composer rarely played in this country though honored as one of the greats in his own. These are arrangements of Love Song, Suk’s ardent declaration of love to Dvorak’s daughter, and Melodrama, an adaptation of “The True Love of Raduz and Mahulena” (the opening movement of Suk’s Fairy Tale), plus his Ballade in D minor, a virtuoso work of tremendous fire and brio. Opening the concert will be Jan Vorisek’s late-classical Sonata in G major. Also on the program will be Leos Janacek’s pre-apocalyptic four-movement sonata written during the First World War, and Lubos Fiser’s post-apocalyptic one-movement sonata, “Hands Written after the Second World War.”