Young violinist steals the show in ASO's `Symphonie Espagnole'



By the late 1800s, French composers were in the throes of a love affair with Spain, an infatuation that would continue well into the 20th century.

It was Georges Bizet, a Frenchman after all, whose opera Carmen became the classic tale of passion and betrayal under the hot Andalusian sun.

Debussy's Iberia, Chabrier's Espana and several works by Ravel (including the famous Bolero) further attest to the French fascination with life on the other side of the Pyrenees.

So did Edouard Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole, which isn't a symphony at all, but a five-movement violin concerto chock-full of references to the rhythms, dances and exotic effects that characterize the music and movement emanating from sunny Spain.

With its dashing melodies and passionate Habaneras, Seguidillas and Malaguenas, Symphonie Espagnole is a license to steal for a violinist possessed of the sultry tone and swashbuckling technique required to bring it off.

On Saturday, the Annapolis Symphony was joined by just such a violinist, though this one happened to be a teenage girl named Rachel Lee, who is studying with Itzhak Perlman and Catherine Cho (who played the Beethoven Violin Concerto with the ASO back in 1991) at the Pre-College Division of New York's Juilliard School. Miss Lee already has performances with Washington's National Symphony and the Seoul (Korea) Philharmonic to her credit, and at age 17, she can deliver a Symphonie Espagnole that is both grandly symphonic and affectingly "espanol."

It's not just her technique either, although clearly there's nothing she can't do on the fingerboard or with her bow. No, what's most impressive is that she is already an artist who can make the music sing.

Lalo's 2nd movement "Scherzando" was spun out as a concert aria, with grace, elegance and a sure sense of line. And though her tone is voluptuous and sexy where it counts (and in this piece it counts for plenty), she concluded the "Intermezzo" with such charm that her listeners responded with a collective chuckle of approval as she finished.

Only the final "Rondo-Allegro" wasn't up to snuff. The orchestra, which was being led by visiting conductor Daniel Hege of the Syracuse Symphony, had some trouble enunciating the opening theme (which Lalo repeats 13 times before bringing on the fiddle) and the movement never quite got airborne.

Hege, though, was a welcome guest who delivered the goods in Sergei Rachmaninoff's seldom-heard Symphony No. 3.

While nowhere near as famous as the great Russian's 2nd Symphony, this large-scale work in A minor is definitely worth a listen, and Hege gave us a rousing account full of the long lines, sumptuous melodies and Slavic emotionalism for which the composer is known and loved. One magic moment occurred in the slow movement when the ASO's new concertmaster, Mateusz Wolski, plucked the theme out of the otherworldly background created by the French horn and harp and made it, exquisitely, his own. Let's hear more from him, and soon.

Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, may I note that the piece received some unwanted accompaniment from Maryland Hall's venerable heating and ventilation system, which clanked its way through some of the more exposed moments in the symphony.

Rachmaninoff injected plenty of percussion into his handiwork. It doesn't need any more.

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