Sleeper’s Violin Concerto receives an exceptional premiere at Gusman Concert Hall

By Lawrence Budmen

Huifang Chen performed Thomas Sleeper's Violin Concerto in its world premiere Saturday night at Gusman Concert Hall.

For nearly two decades Thomas Sleeper has been director of the University of Miami’s Frost Symphony Orchestra. He has consistently drawn performances from his young musicians that have exceeded the student level.

Sleeper’s outstanding conducting and pedagogical talents have tended to unfairly eclipse his abilities as a composer. Sleeper has produced a varied output of interesting, finely crafted works. On Saturday night the Greater Miami Youth Symphony presented the premiere of his Violin Concerto (subtitled Hypnagogia) at the university’s Gusman Concert Hall.

Sleeper’s new concerto was written for Huifang Chen, conductor of the youth orchestra and a longtime orchestral player in South Florida. It was a big night for Chen. First she led the teenage players in excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake before taking up her solo duties in the new score.

In comments before the performance, Sleeper defined the subtitle Hypnagogia as the state between sleep and being awake and indicated that was the inspiration for the work.

Whatever the programmatic idea behind the concerto, the score is well constructed and filled with substantial musical invention. A theme that could have come from Alban Berg opens the Agitato first movement. Over brass and percussive fanfares, the violins dart rapid, nervous figurations before increasingly angry orchestral outbursts bring the movement to a conclusion.

The central Lusingando is rich in melodic and harmonic patterns. The solo violin plays a long-limbed rhapsodic melody, the romantic aura winding through the movement. Mallet percussion introduce the finale, followed by a violin recitative. The Allegro furioso lives up to its name, a bravura romp in the manner of Prokofiev in his wildest moments. An evocative middle episode provides brief respite before the tumult returns, the soloist galloping at top speed over a churning orchestral background.

Chen was equal to the formidable challenges of Sleeper’s score. Her dark tonal shadings and rich vibrato fit the late romantic glint of the first two movements like a glove. In the barn-burning finale, Chen summoned the speed and articulation to sail through the multiple hurdles. Combining fire and finesse, Chen gave an exceptional performance of this intense new showpiece.

Andres Jaime, former assistant conductor of the Fort Worth Symphony and a recent doctoral student under Sleeper at UM Frost School of Music, drew a remarkable performance from the youthful musicians. He elicited colorful, rhythmically incisive playing from all sections. The concerto was accompanied by a film featuring art work of Sleeper’s wife, Sherri Tan. This video was most effective when it mirrored the music with film of Chen playing against striking backdrops.

Sleeper has a real penchant for creating instrumental lines that ring with conviction and prove ingratiating to the listener. No doubt his long experience as a conductor has given him great insight into orchestral writing. His shorter work, Hana’s Day Out, is a fine example.

An orchestral transcription of Sleeper’s Sapphire Overture for band, the piece opens with a jaunty tune and morphs into Bernstein-like dance rhythms. A lyrical central episode spotlights horns and winds prior to a return of the upbeat motifs. Never succumbing to the pitfalls of repetitive minimalism, the score is a lively, refreshingly brash concert overture. Jaime drew lustrous playing from the strings and a snappy, well-coordinated  effort from the full ensemble. Hana’s Day Out was recently played by the Baltimore Symphony and Sleeper’s works deserve continued exposure on that level.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Sleeper’s Violin Concerto receives an exceptional premiere at Gusman Concert Hall”

  1. Posted Mar 30, 2012 at 11:25 pm by Howard Chan

    Wow! Great review! I’ve accompanied Hiufang before and she is an exceptional violinist. U of Miami, Florida and all of the world is lucky to have a gifted & talented musician like Huifang!

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Tue Mar 20, 2012
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