ISGM’s Dancing Partners: A Fusion of Violin Solos and Dance at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

by Madonna

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s Sunday Series continues to reflect the evolving landscape of classical music by welcoming emerging talents and exploring a diverse repertoire. In a recent performance, violinist Geneva Lewis and dancer Ashley Bouder embarked on an extraordinary journey, fusing the works of classical giants such as Bach, Bartók, and Stravinsky with compositions by contemporary figures like Saariaho, Frances-Hoad, and Esmail. Their collaboration was complemented by choreography from Gianna Reisman, which enhanced the auditory experience within the museum’s “sonic cube.”

Geneva Lewis, a 25-year-old New Zealand-born violinist and graduate of the New England Conservatory, joined forces with Ashley Bouder, not in conventional classics like Béla Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances or Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Fairy’s Kiss, but in J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E Major. This intriguing choice set the stage for a performance that defied expectations.


The performance featured a succession of contemporary works, beginning with Reena Esmail’s “Charukeshi” from her 2018 composition, “Darshan.” Esmail, an Indian-American artist, seamlessly blended Western and North Indian influences, creating a captivating solo violin piece. Geneva Lewis expertly navigated the intricate musical alphabet of the Indian tradition, displaying reverence for its scale and associated materials. Her interpretation was a mesmerizing exploration, punctuated by soaring phrases and ethereal harmonics, all skillfully brought to life on a “composite” Guadagnini violin from 1776. The violin’s double-stops, blending Western references, were executed with precision, hinting at the remarkable artistry to come.


Kaija Saariaho’s “Nocturne” from 1994 conveyed melancholy and a poignant reminder of the recent passing of the acclaimed composer. The piece, marked by its open, spacious atmosphere, allowed Geneva Lewis to connect intimately with the music. Her performance, while occasionally detached as intended, showcased her keen understanding of the work’s intricate nuances.


Throughout the performance, elements reminiscent of the Middle East emerged, underscoring the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s mission to embrace diverse cultural influences.

Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s “Suite No. 1” (2014) provided a five-movement solo violin work that drew inspiration from Bach’s Partita, though it bore little resemblance to the classic composition. The suite offered moments of captivating whistling and plucking, revealing Lewis’s deep affinity for these unique violin techniques. However, the metronomic nature of the piece, combined with its fragmented melodic flow, presented challenges to the overall musical experience.

The highlight of the performance came when Geneva Lewis and dancer Ashley Bouder brought J.S. Bach to life through a world-premiere choreography by Gianna Reisen, commissioned by the ISBM. Illuminated by Emily Bearce’s lighting design, this partnership added an extra layer of creativity to the performance. Their interpretation of Bach’s works was intriguing and entertaining, emphasizing both the violinist and the dancer. The choreography, while not strictly Baroque or Modern, offered a fresh perspective on Bach’s compositions.

After intermission, Geneva Lewis, accompanied by pianist Dina Vainshtein on the Steinway, delved into Romanian dances and Russian ballet music. Bartók’s 1915/1925 work began the second part of the program, with Lewis showcasing her robust violin timbre and rhythmic prowess. The performance evoked a vivid imagery of Stick Dance and Sash Dance, accentuated by whistling harmonics and spirited bow strokes.

Dina Vainshtein’s piano accompaniment added a new dimension to the performance, particularly notable in Bartók’s compositions and later in Stravinsky’s Russian ballet music. Her expressive playing, deeply intertwined with the music, reinforced her well-deserved reputation as a remarkable pianist.

The Russian ballet music, The Fairy’s Kiss (1928/1934), presented a lighter, more nostalgic atmosphere. Lewis’s performance adapted to the softer, delicate passages, demonstrating her versatility and artistry. Her transition from a duo to a concerto mode was evident, as she embraced the demands of virtuosity with confidence and precision.

Geneva Lewis, who previously studied under Miriam Fried at the New England Conservatory and now works with Mihaela Martin at the Kronberg Academy, showcased her instrumental artistry and promise. Her performance was a testament to her skill and dedication, while her ongoing development promises even greater naturalness and spontaneity in her future endeavors.

In conclusion, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s Sunday Series continues to push the boundaries of classical music, fostering innovation and exploration. Geneva Lewis and Ashley Bouder’s performance, with its unique fusion of violin and dance, added a fresh and captivating dimension to classical repertoire, and Dina Vainshtein’s stellar piano accompaniment elevated the overall experience. The museum’s commitment to cultural diversity and embracing various artistic influences further enriches the classical music landscape.


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