Fiery performances close concerto weekend in style

By Lawrence A. Johnson

The hegemony of 19th-century violin Romanticism at this year’s New World Symphony Concerto Showcase weekend was decisively broken up by the crashing modernism of Witold Lutoslawski Saturday night at the Lincoln Theatre.

Props to soloist Hyojin Ahn for swimming against the tide of string barnburners to offer the Polish composer’s rigorous Piano Concerto, written for Krystian Zimerman and premiered in 1988.

Structured in a single 25-minute movement of four connected sections, the Piano Concerto offers many of Lutoslawski’s handprints with solo writing heavy on octaves and thirds, improvisatory orchestral passages, untuned percussion and a cleverly devised closing passacaglia.

The Korean pianist proved an ideal advocate, playing with a linear strength and expressive poise well suited to this challenging, often beautiful score. She conveyed the unsettled melancholy of the Largo with its long cantabile line, Ahn’s blend of delicacy and precision bringing out the concerto’s solo filigree, which resembles Chopin through a distorted mirror.  In the finale, the solo playing was a bit underpowered in sonorous heft, but this was still elegant, first-class advocacy of an extremely difficult work.  Kudos to Neale and the orchestra who supported their colleague with tightly knit teamwork on the same high level.

Similarly, in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, Ko Sugiyama’s timbre was not the most commanding, but the first-year violinist  provided the audience with a performance that wedded technical facility with a star soloist’s musical personality, breathing fresh life into this thrice-familiar warhorse.

 Sugiyama consistently invested Tchaikovsky’s concerto  with an expressive spontaneity and quirkiness that banished all sense of routine.  The Canzonetta was taken at a daringly hushed  dynamic, yet his introspective, subtly hued phrasing had the audience hanging on every note. There were a few bow slips along the way, but Sugiyama’s thrilling performance was the real thing, culminating in a blazing finale and coda that any big-name international solo violinist would be proud of.  Neale and the orchestra provided equally exuberant support.

Even those with a fondness for unapologetic fiddle showpieces, will find Henryk Wieniawski’s Violin Concerto No. 1 takes some indulgence. Written at age 18 by the Polish virtuoso as a vehicle for his feats of soloistic derring-do, Wieniawski’s concerto is pretty slender stuff with its uneasy mix of schmaltzy tunes and tortuous complexities.

Elina Lev did an admirable job of negotiating the fusillade of notes and technical landmines, yet her light timbre and careful rendering seemed a bit pallid in a work that calls for a bolder, more aggressive approach to come off successfully.  

NOTE: Saturday’s concert was dedicated to the memory of Randy Wolfgang, a great gentleman and house manager for the New World Symphony, who died Thursday after a brief bout with cancer. He is survived by his partner, Thomas Voruz.

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Sun Feb 8, 2009
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