Koh sends ASO soaring in strong concert


May 11, 2007|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,Special to The Sun

There were several reasons to look forward to the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra's final concert of the 2006-2007 season. One of the main reasons was the appearance of violinist Jennifer Koh as soloist.

The last time Koh, an artist trained at Oberlin College and Philadelphia's Curtis Institute, appeared with the ASO was 1999, when she collaborated with conductor Leslie Dunner in a Barber violin concerto that was the highlight of the former maestro's tenure with the orchestra.

News of her return to Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts to play a Sibelius concerto with Jose-Luis Novo on the podium did not go unnoticed.

Also intriguing was the inclusion of Richard Strauss' poem, Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks. Like most of Strauss' works for full orchestra, Till appears rarely - if at all - on programs given by provincial ensembles. Not only is it fiendishly difficult to play, its full orchestral cast (three flutes, three oboes, three bassoons, English horn, contrabassoon and a full battery of percussion) requires major funding. Clearly, the orchestra went all out.

Finally, there was an rareappearance by Paul Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber, a work whose ponderous title obscures one of the most engaging and colorful works of the 20th century symphonic canon.

So how did it all turn out? Let's take the individual components one by one.

Koh indeed lived up to the high standards she set eight years ago. The Violin Concerto by the Finnish master, Jean Sibelius, may be the most enigmatic of the great works for violin and orchestra.

One hears a Nordic chill in the musical air. At the same time, the concerto is full of lush writing fairly screaming to be delivered with all the hot, romantic virtuosity a fiddler can muster. There's more than a hint of melancholy, as well.

How does one reconcile that with Scandinavian detachment and the impassioned flair that animates the solo and orchestral writing?

Which view did Ms. Koh adopt? All of them, it turns out; and each made its appearance within the first 30 seconds of the piece. Her opening line was melancholic to a fault, drifting in ethereally over the gently undulating figures played by the violins. In the very next phrase, she all but eliminated her vibrato, applying an icy tonal layer that would turn hot as she set up the first big orchestral entrance. "Sibelius," she seemed to be saying, "speaks in many voices. Why shouldn't I?"

Oh, there were a couple of passages she'd like to have back, but this was a performance that "went for it" and imparted something special as it did.

I was also thrilled to hear Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphosis played with such vim and vigor, especially the last movement, which is one of the most infectiously joyous marches. Hindemith always favored the brass, so it's easy for those folks in the back row of the orchestra to blow the house down when they get the chance.

Bravo to the trumpets, trombones, horns and their conductor for keeping the brassiness in balance.

A few splats notwithstanding, the tongue-twisting passages of Till Eulenspiegel also rang out to great effect, as the story of the mischievous elf was told with warmth and verve.

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