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San Antonio Symphony: A feminine concert with lots of punch

Jennifer Koh
The Music Beat

By David Hendricks

The opening bars of Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 is rather like opening a door and hearing an orchestra that already is playing.

Friday night at the San Antonio Symphony's Majestic Theatre concert, the Beethoven piece erupted with all the spontaneous happiness that any piece of music could ever offer, and that was just the first minute. In the hands of Mexican guest conductor Alondra de la Parra, who now lives in New York City, the Beethoven symphony traversed an exuberant dance, then a solemn procession before falling headlong into a bacchic frenzy.

De la Parra's conducting style must be seen to be believed. Her electric, precise and energetic fluidity generated arches of breathtaking, glowing expression. The driving Beethoven rhythms pulled the audience to its feet at the end. If people still wore hats, they would have been tossed toward the theater's night-sky ceiling.

De la Parra knew exactly what she wanted. For just the Beethoven, she switched the stage positions of the brass and the basses. With the six basses lined up across the back of the orchestra and directly facing the audience, their deep-throated role was emphasized and made a noticeable difference. The more visible bow action seemed to help propel the music.

A contender for the symphony's music director post, de la Parra built upon her fabulous Peter Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 performance a year ago this month here, programming an eclectic list this time to show diverse strengths. Only 28 and coached by the likes of the Baltimore Symphony's Marin Alsop, de la Parra coaxed ample poetry out of the musicians, especially during Claude Debussy's peaceful "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun."

The concert opened with Clarice Assad's "Brazilian Fanfare," a humorous, swingy, charming tour of the composer's native country and its many musical moods, including a Samba. The brass and wind musicians shared the lead in the fanfare and executed beautifully.

The evening's guest artist was violinist Jennifer Koh, American-born to Korean parents and holder of an English degree from Ohio's Oberlin College. Koh hardly played like an English major, though, diving into her very personal interpretation of Sergei Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 2.

Koh handled the opening movement's folk-song themes well and then turned radiant during the love-song theme opening the middle movement. Her sometimes near-violent playing emphasized the rough edges of the concerto's rough-and-tumble rondo finale, which was enhanced with a Spanish atmosphere of castanets from the percussion section. Koh's well-received encore was an allemande from a J.S. Bach partita in D minor.

In all, it was a lovely, feminine evening with a female conductor and guest artist, plus a woman composer on the program. The concert still packed plenty of muscle and punch, however.