Violinist brings intensity to Bruch

Concert: In contrast to soloists' polite readings in past seasons, Lara St. John's performance of the concerto in G minor gave full expression to the music's passion

May 20, 1999|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When the Annapolis Symphony has sought out violin soloists in recent seasons, it has often turned to the concertmasters of some of our most celebrated American orchestras.

Ruben Gonzalez of the Chicago Symphony, Herbert Greenberg of the Baltimore Symphony, Uri Pianka of Houston and Alexander Kerr, formerly of the Cincinnati Orchestra (now with Concertgebouw of Amsterdam) have all taken the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts stage and contributed polite, gentlemanly, scrupulously collegial accounts of the concertos entrusted to them.

But a quick glance at violinist Lara St. John, who played the Bruch G minor with the ASO last weekend, will tell you that she is no gentleman. And, be assured, the 27-year-old Canadian fiddler doesn't play like one either.

Her intensity level, in fact, inspires the cliche-monger in me, for St. John goes for broke, pulls no punches, and lets the emotional chips fall where they may. So much for polite, deferential violin playing.

Of all the great concertos, Bruch No. 1 probably responds best to such an incendiary approach, and the visitor pulled it off in grand fashion.

Pyrotechnics aside, the gorgeous slow movement sang eloquently, and the gypsy dance of the third movement had plenty of kinetic zest.

Just occasionally, I think, less physical intensity would have yielded a more voluptuous tone. Just after the big orchestral tutti in the Adagio, for example, St. John was poised to make an oh-so-grand statement, but when the time came, practically no sound came out of her instrument. Sometimes, a bit of restraint can inspire an outpouring of melody just as effectively as clenched arms and fingers.

ASO conductor Leslie Dunner and his players gave St. John all the passionate support she could have wanted.

Dunner also impressed me with his take on Beethoven's Seventh Symphony.

In truth, we haven't heard much distinguished Beethoven at Maryland Hall during the Peter Bay or Gisele Ben-Dor regimes, or in the "conductor search" seasons in between.

If the symphony has ever played better Beethoven than it did last weekend, it was with Leon Fleisher on the podium a couple of decades back, and by all accounts, the orchestra wasn't as technically polished then as it is now.

I would have enjoyed more enthusiasm from the trumpet and horns in both the Seventh Symphony and Beethoven's "Egmont" Overture. Other than that, I liked everything I heard.

Dunner's rhythms were well-sprung, especially the dotted ones that animate the first movement of the symphony. Phrases were shaped with flair and good taste and, for once, Beethoven didn't come off sounding mad.

All in all, this was old Ludwig with a spring in his step and some profound joy in his heart. And that's how I like to hear him when the emotional shoe fits, as it most assuredly does in the celestial Seventh Symphony.

Pub Date: 5/20/99

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