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Beethoven vs. Brahms at Bard

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun May 28th, 2017

Fabio Luisi with members of Bard’s TŌN Orchestra

Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61, written at the productive age of 36, remains one of his most beloved concert numbers. It has unforgettable melodies and dynamic tympani rhythms with rising scales that accompany the listener when departing the concert hall. While the first movement, performed here at Sosnoff Theater by Bard’s TŌN Orchestra with éclat, is rooted in Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in D minor, BMV 1043, the second movement in the style of a Mozart romanza dwells on a ten bar melody.

During the second movement, that “tranquil” episode treasured by Beethoven fans for its uncharacteristic calmness and extended pizzicato, the strings somewhat departed for Lotus Land, forgetting their capacity to project vibratory warmth of low radiance. Aside from uncertainty in cello modulation, the performance of the orchestra was in solid support of David Chan, whose show this was. After all, a violin concerto is really about the violin, no matter how much the violin dialogues with the orchestra, or suggests melodies for the orchestra to embroider. Chan, Metropolitan Orchestra Concertmaster, was superb, although not perhaps as soulful as Isaac Stern in the high notes, yet it was a ravishing, riveting performance that appeared to intimidate the student strings and evoke ecstatic applause from the delighted audience.

Despite its supporting role, the orchestra came to life in the third movement, especially invigorated by the flute and horns, as the solo violin became more modest, as if acknowledging it functions as a bright twinkling star, rather than glorious local sun of a planetary system. The difficulty of the violin soloist cannot be taken for granted in this masterpiece that created a new standard for the violin concerto. The audience rightfully demanded that Chan take a second bow to standing applause.

During intermission Bard encourages student orchestra member to mingle with the audience in the foyer. I had the good fortune to talk to violist David Riker from Miami (students appear to arrive at Bard from all corners of the country and globe). I inquired of David what he thought of conductor Fabio Luisi, principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera and Zurich Opera. David’s face became animated with excitement and he said Luisi was a marvel,  that every movement of his baton had such nuance and his amazing energy was contagious. David spoke of how he learned of the unusual irregularities in the rhythms of Brahms that permit conductors and musicians some leeway in interpretation. This was a fine insight, akin to the confidence that late Shakespeare bestowed on his actors, writing in such a way as to allow multiple interpretations of a character. David, a first year student in TŌN, expressed the fond wish that he might once again perform under the dynamic spell of Luisi. (Yes, an orchestra can have good viola players, yet nearly no one notices them.)

While I harbored no doubts about Fabio Luisi, I was thunderstruck by his conducting of Brahms’ Symphony No. 4; he was the incarnation of lightning while students all responded above their previous levels of performance. Here was strength and unity: cellos melded with bass players; strings sang in impeccable unity; tympani and horns did not overwhelm. The result was gorgeous astonishment by all. After the concert, I stood around the entrance overhang, speaking to several people who all agreed that the TŌN orchestra outdid itself in the performance of Brahms. Luisi virtually elided the fourth movement into the third allegro movement; this proved to be a psychological masterstroke that kept the orchestra’s energy at fever pitch. I’ve been attending concerts at Sosnoff Theater since it opened and only twice before have I witnessed such audience enthusiasm. This sold-out concert was the last student concert of the season—and what a way it was to close like this!