Notes gleam like pearls in Kawakubo's playing

October 24, 1998|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Sometimes a familiar piece surprises the listener with details that have never been noticed before. Such was the case last night in Meyerhoff Hall when Tamaki Kawakubo played the Sibelius Violin Concerto with the Baltimore Symphony and guest conductor Hans Graf.

The California-born Kawakubo is only 17, and her youth made her individual approach to the concerto's first movement all the more remarkable. Even in an era when musicians appear to be playing ever more slowly, her tempos sounded unusually spacious. She was thus able to make individual phrases (and sometimes even notes) stand out like samples of highly burnished jewelry in an upscale boutique.

But while impressive, this was not always to the benefit of the music. The structure of the first movement seemed to collapse. And the young violinist's neglect of the composer's "Allegro moderato" (or "moderately fast") tempo marking for the movement undermined the contrast with the subsequent slow movement, which now did not sound slow so much as it sounded like more of the same.

Kawakubo is, nonetheless, a remarkable violinist. Her intonation was true, and she took the concerto's technical hurdles in stride. She showed real tenderness in the slow movement, and her playing in the finale was both aristocratic and exhilarating. But before a musician is ready to take an adventurous interpretive flight, he or she needs to grasp the obvious.

The violinist received a fine accompaniment from the orchestra and Graf. The Austrian conductor also did a superb job with Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 3. This is a tough piece -- much of its structure is elusive, and its changes in rhythm can be tricky. But Graf's sense of purpose never faltered, and he reveled in the symphony's rich textures without sacrificing clarity.

Unlike nearly every other conductor, Graf did not take an accelerando in the coda. This makes the piece sound a little weird: it just seems to stop dead in its tracks. But the score does not indicate such speeding up and, in his own recording of the symphony with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the composer himself maintained the tempo throughout the coda.

Graf is clearly not one of those conductors who thinks he knows better than the composer.

Pub Date: 10/24/98

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