Harvesting music from different corners of the repertory, violinist Tim Fain plays two pieces for violin alone in a Raritan River Music Festival concert on Saturday, May 8, at Old Greenwich Presbyterian Church in Stewartsville. The venerable Partita in E major was written by Johann Sebastian Bach, who died in 1750. “Suite for Solo Violin,” a work by Philip Glass, is not yet finished.
In a telephone interview from Montana, where Fain is indulging in a working vacation, practicing both pieces, he calls the Glass performance a “preview.” The work is planned as an eight-movement piece. “So far I have three movements,” Fain says. The Glass work, a joint commission for Fain, will not be heard in its entirety until late 2011, when it premieres in New York, Chicago, Seattle, and Los Angeles, among other places.
The May 8 program also includes pieces by Antonio Vivaldi, Pablo Sarasate, and Manuel de Falla, which Fain performs with guitar duo Michael Newman and Laura Oltman, founders of the festival. Newman and Oltman prepared the transcriptions from the original orchestral versions of this group of pieces.
Newman writes in an E-mail that they devised the arrangement of Vivaldi’s “Winter” from “The Four Seasons” by drawing on the composer’s orchestral writing as well as their improvisation based on the figured bass provided by the composer. “It is very much the same process as a jazz musician reading from charts,” he says.
“The music by Sarasate and de Falla is so guitaristic,” he continues, “that it fits quite idiomatically on the guitars, although there are tons of notes flying by really fast.”
The festival is known as much for its programming as it is for its venues — all photogenic sites in picturesque towns in western New Jersey. “Inviting music lovers to listen in such intimate, historic, and acoustically incredible spaces is what the festival is all about,” Newman says.
“Last year, for the 20th anniversary of the festival, we featured mostly past favorites. This year, for the most part, the concerts are devoted to new music and new performers.”
Fain played previously at the Raritan River Music Festival in 2003. “We had performed with Tim at a music festival in Pensacola, Florida,” Newman says. “We thought, ‘This guy would be a hit at the Raritan River Festival,’ and we were right.”
According to Fain, minimalist composer Glass pursues a new style in “Suite for Solo Violin,” the piece he previews. “It’s great to see how Philip has taken minimalist building blocks and put them back together in a much more lyrical form,” Fain says. “You can still hear remnants of his very unmistakable style — what gives his music such a recognizable character. But the new piece is more concise, lyrical, and beautiful than what went before.
“It’s very approachable both for people who have not heard Glass before, or for those who have,” Fain says. “He has not written much for solo strings. But he has a great knowledge of the way in which string instruments work.” Fain performed in a concert version of Glass’s opera “Einstein on the Beach” at Carnegie Hall in 2007.
“I’m very excited about Glass’s new lyricism,” he says. “I like all those melodic fragments across his entire output. The violin is such a singing instrument.”
The violin on which Fain has “sung” for the last three years is a 1717 Franciscus Gobetti, on loan to him through the Stradivari Society of Chicago. “It’s great to be able to play on a beautiful old instrument for a long period of time,” Fain says. “Whenever I take it out of the case, I think, ‘It’s amazing that this instrument has survived for over 300 years and enables me to make beautiful music.’ I keep discovering new things about the instrument. It has a special quality. I feel as if I’m communing with another soul. It’s something mystical. The instrument has a natural, powerful tone. Its power makes it exciting to play. It’s like a beautiful race car, and gives me the confidence that I command more power than I need.”
Enthusiastic as he is about the centuries-old violin, Fain uses what cyberspace offers as part of his tool box. He embraces the new social media. “I really enjoy staying in touch with what’s going on,” he says. “It’s great to connect with people online. Like in life, some people screen calls, or look out the window to see who’s knocking at their door. But I feel that if someone wants to get in touch with me, they should be able to.”
Fain tells of an Internet benefit he received. “Recently, I posted a video with Rob Thomas from Jazz at Lincoln Center. I got distracted and only uploaded two or three seconds of playing. A fan got in touch with me through YouTube and let me know that the whole video was not there.” With warm feelings, the grateful violinist corrected the problem.
“I’m like that on stage,” Fain says. “I’m a friendly guy. I love meeting people. Part of what I love about performing is connecting with people and showing them how I feel about pieces and how great it is to be alive.
“When I’m on stage,” he continues, “I love the energy you feel from the people listening. It’s hard to say exactly what’s going on. There’s a lot happening that you can’t see. But you can feel it. Even if I close my eyes, I can feel the energy coming back from the crowd.”
“So, you have no performance problems,” I venture.
“Look,” he says, invoking the obvious. “Everybody gets a little nervous if they’re about to do something that they really care about. I want to give people a good show. I want to give them something that moves them and, maybe, moves me in the process. It’s exciting, but it’s not a problem because I care and because it really matters to me.”
Fain recounts a bizarre performing experience that, somehow, failed to rattle him. “I was playing for my dad’s 60th birthday and I looked out into the audience. Half of them hadn’t seen me since I was six. I was a little nervous, but everything was going fine. I was playing ‘Arches.’” The piece by Kevin Puts provides the name for his newly-released CD, which includes a Bach Partita and Appalachian fiddling.
“There was a technical, fast passage,” says Fain about the birthday performance, “and suddenly I lost my grip of the bow. Somehow, I kept playing, but the bow was up in the air. I reached up, grabbed the bow and continued playing. I could hear gasps from the audience, especially from the musicians.”
“Anything that can go wrong in performing, does,” Fain says. “When you look back you can have a good laugh.”
Now 34, Fain was born in Santa Monica in 1976 to UCLA scientist parents who enjoy music. His father is a neurophysiologist; his mother, a biologist.
Fain graduated from Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute in 1998, and from New York’s Juilliard School in 2000. He was a Young Concert Artists winner in 1999 and received an Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2001. He made his New York City recital debut in 2001 at the 92nd Street Y, with music by Ludwig van Beethoven, Gabriel Faure, William Bolcom, and Pablo Sarasate. His New York concerto debut took place at Alice Tully Hall in 2001 with the Ernest Chausson “Poeme” and the New York Chamber Symphony.
Fain’s first instrument was piano. His first solo performance with orchestra was on piano at age 11.
At about seven, Fain started studying violin. “Eventually, the violin won out,” he says. “It’s hard to explain. Violin seems much more unnatural in the way you have to move your body. But violin felt more natural to me. There’s something about the way in which it is like a human voice.”
Having watched Fain on YouTube, I ask him about his bowing. He handles the bow as if it were either infinitely long or infinitely short, whichever he chooses. “Using the bow is like breathing,” he says. “I grew up in California near the ocean. When you dive down, you have to hold your breath. When you want to extend a phrase, [using a single bow stroke] it feels as if you were saving breath in the same way.”
Exploring beyond conventional violinist gigs, Fain has performed with dancers and played for the movies. “It’s great to work with the medium of dance,” he says. “You can learn a lot about music by seeing how dancers move on stage. Their bodies are always in character. The visual elements can help bring across the music in a different way.”
Choreography is a component in the new Philip Glass piece Fain previews at Raritan River Music Festival. “It will contain dance, music, and the spoken word. It’s about how we communicate in the digital age, and how we find human connections in an age of E-mail and Facebook, when we are removed from face-to-face contact.”
Fain has been the “voice” of Richard Gere’s violin in the movie “Bee Season,” and looks forward to further work with film. “Richard Gere knew his stuff,” Fain says. “He practiced violin for a month before the movie, and really looked like a violinist. I made him sound good; he made me look good.”
Tim Fain, Raritan River Music Festival, Old Greenwich Presbyterian Church, Bloomsbury. Saturday, May 8, 7:30 p.m. “Romanza,” a concert of music of Vivaldi, Bach, Sarasate, and an excerpt of a new work by Philip Glass with Tim Fain on violin and the Newman and Oldman Guitar Duo. $35. 908-213-1100 or www.RaritanRiverMusic.org.