Ole Bull was one of the world's leading violinists during the 19th century — that explains why his statue stands in Loring Park. But why is Bull commemorated there and not, say, Paganini, the greatest of his violin-playing contemporaries?
The answer is that Bull was born in Bergen, Norway, and his spectacular career made him the first Norwegian to enjoy vast international celebrity.
Bull traveled frequently to Minnesota, becoming a hero for the state's Norwegian immigrant population. The Loring Park statue was the first erected to Bull anywhere, predating even a memorial in Bull's hometown.
Bull's life and music were celebrated at St. Paul's Landmark Center on Thursday evening, in a lecture recital by English violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved.
Sheppard Skaerved is a formidable violinist — a prerequisite for playing Bull's music — but also a scholar of the instrument. He began by placing Bull's achievement in perspective by emphasizing the influence of the great Italian player/composers Tartini and Locatelli on the young Norwegian.
The scuttling perpetual motion arpeggios in an excerpt from Locatelli's "Il Laberinto Armonico" were tossed off nonchalantly. Yet there was nuance, too, with an instantaneous flipping between loud and soft passages.
Bull's own playing borrowed more than a few licks from the Italian masters, as Sheppard Skaerved demonstrated in his reconstruction of "American Fantasy," the type of piece Bull used to impress Minnesota audiences. The "Fantasy" took a selection of American popular tunes and spun them into a segue sequence, bound together by dazzling technical embellishments. Particularly stunning were Sheppard Skaerved's skedaddling staccato runs up the instrument's E string, achieved without any compromises to pitch or tuning.
Sheppard Skaerved played a Hardanger fiddle once owned by Bull and now in the possession of the Schubert Club Museum. Traditionally used in Norway to play folk music, the Hardanger has four additional strings placed beneath the four played with the bow. These extra strings resonate sympathetically with the bowed strings, creating a background buzz and hum, at times suggesting that more than one instrument is being played.
The clutch of pieces played on the beautifully embossed Schubert Club instrument had a headily nostalgic quality, the old Norwegian folk tunes speaking evocatively across the 150 years since Bull himself performed them.
A tantalizing glimpse of what Bull's own playing sounded like came in "Nissespel," a piece that captured Bull's composed-on-the-spot improvisations. It capped Sheppard Skaerved's excellent recital, and helped explain the magnetism Bull exerted over audiences — and why, at his funeral in 1880, Bull was hailed as "the first and the greatest celebration" in the history of the Norwegian people.
Terry Blain writes about classical music and theater.