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Koh shines in Adams’ Violin Concerto with New World Symphony

02.06.10
Jennifer Koh
South Florida Classical Review

By David Fleshler

As Super Bowl madness gripped South Florida, it might still be possible to forget all that and escape into Miami Beach’s Lincoln Theatre Friday evening for a concert by the New World Symphony.

Think again. “Super Bowl XLIX - Own the Moment,” read a rack of T-shirts in the theater’s bar, temporarily converted into a football memorabilia shop, where bemused concertgoers wandered around the team jerseys and commemorative mugs. Other items: NFL golf balls, “Lil’ Teammates Collectible NFL Figures” and a copy of the “Official Game Coin.”

Escape was a few yards away in the auditorium, where the New World Symphony put on a fine performance of works of Adams, Berlioz and Stravinsky under the direction of the highly regarded young French conductor, Ludovic Morlot.

John Adams’ Violin Concerto, which has become popular since its 1994 premiere in Minneapolis, is both traditional in its structure and searching in its musical language. The Chicago-born violinist Jennifer Koh, a leading exponent of contemporary music, gave a brilliant and committed performance of the solo part, challenging not just for its technical difficulties but for Adams’ decision to give the violinist a total of about a minute’s rest through the entire piece, which lasts more than a half-hour.

The concerto follows the venerable three-movement, fast-slow-fast form that was familiar to Vivaldi, and in its celebration of virtuosity and the violin’s capabilities–it even has a cadenza—resembles the great concertos of the 19th and 20th centuries.

But its musical language is its own. As the violin ascends through its rhapsodic melodies, played by Koh with luscious but never old-fashioned tone, the orchestra plays a pulsing, eight-note figure that repeats and transforms among different orchestral combinations. Under Morlot’s direction, this accompaniment was indistinct at first, without the insistent pulse that defines the movement against the soaring figures of the violin, but it grew in power and clarity over the course of the movement.

In the second movement chaconne, Koh and the orchestra combined for a solemn, ethereal performance as the violin again soars high above the orchestra. In the last movement, a perpetual-motion of brutal difficulty, Koh plunged into the work’s challenges with a fierce, driving energy that never lost accuracy or became raucous, bringing the work to a rousing conclusion.

The concert opened with Berlioz’s youthful overture to the opera Judges of the Secret Court, given an energetic performance that was notable for forceful but refined playing in the brass and crisp, incisive work in the strings.

In the second half, the orchestra performed Stravinsky’s Pétrouchka, one of the three great ballet scores that established the young composer’s reputation in the early 20th century Paris. Morlot led a dramatic performance that treated the work as if a genuine ballet was taking place, not just a brilliant concert piece, with many changes in tempo and dynamics to tell the story of a rebellious puppet in love with a ballerina. Textures were light and transparent, except when - as Stravinsky intended - they needed to be heavy and oppressive to tell the story of the puppet’s oppression.

The work gave the opportunity for impressive, well-handled solo turns in the flute, clarinet, trumpet, bassoon and other instruments. Although there were a couple of blotches in the trumpet and horn playing, solos came off well, particularly in the Moor’s Cell section, in which different solo instruments represent the various characters.