While Jean Sibelius’ Violin Concerto is now a favorite of competitions and performances, that was not always so. In fact, it was never highly regarded during his lifetime. Sibelius was a violinist before he gave it up to be a composer, yet this magnificent concerto was the only concerto he ever composed. As pointed out by TŌN violinist Linda Duan’s concise program notes, it was Jascha Heifetz and Ginette Nevue who revived its importance and reputation. In more recent time there have two quite different prominent interpretive performances: Anne-Sophie Mutter’s rather delicate, poignant, fragile lyric sound with slightly slower tempo; and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg’s more robustly extroverted, sonorous, powerful sound, and slightly faster tempo. Both versions are awesome in live performance and with good recordings, yet those recordings downplay the vital contribution of the orchestra.
Xinran Li, Bard College’s 2019 Competitions winner, who began violin at the age of three, delivered an impressively nuanced interpretation that unearthed more angst and pathos after the opening sonorities, thus portraying the more autobiographical residue of what was occurring in Sibelius’ life during these alcohol-troubled years when he feared being plunged into a pit of bottomless debt. Li handled well the virtuosic leaps and capers that this work demands, leaving to the ear some memorable passages to recall. In the crystaline landscape of Sibelius, especially in the second movement, Li discovered vulnerability below the ice; her opening of the third movement displayed fierce virtuosity. My only criticism is that a few of the repetitive folk refrains in the work were flatly repetitive when compared to how they are dressed up by Mutter and Sonnenberg. The ecstatic audience demanded three bows. Unlike many virtuosi, she appears unassumingly modest, without arrogant pride.
During intermission I had a lively conversation with Shawn Hutchinson. He was one of the three oboists who excelled that evening, the others being James Jihyun Kim and Regina Brady. Shawn began with the clarinet at eleven but soon switched to oboe. He said learning to play the oboe well is a longer haul than playing clarinet. He was enthusiastic about the Great Romantic Repertoire, Baroque (especially Bach and Haydn), as well as modern, especially Shostakovich. He asserted he had an interest in new music that expands what the oboe can do and joked that one of the advantages of playing a premiere is that if one makes a mistake no one knows.
Yet it takes more than a few good oboes to perform Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 where the whole orchestra has an opportunity to excel. And so it was under Dr. Leon Botstein’s baton. The violins, led by Concertmaster Bram Margoles, came to life with an eerily menacing sound, Jacob Lipham on timpani played with gusto, Mathew Ross on flute delivered eloquence, Carl Garner(who gave an informative historical introduction) on bassoon supplied some gentle humor when needed, and William Loveless and Luke Baker excelled on horn. Bass and cellos had everyone’s back: there was the spirit of fierce contagious unity that excites when an orchestra knows that it races in top form into the finale!
The textual particulars of tenth appear to cover a large sweep of history, including horrors of the Second World War and its repressive aftermath. This Beethoven-like symphony remains an unusual melding of personal perspective, satire, and a deep hope for world peace. The audience demanded three bows and appeared reluctant to leave and breathe the autumn moonlit air.