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Music review: Sarah Chang handles difficult performance brilliantly

Sarah Chang
The Daily Gazette

By Geraldine Freedman

Violinist Sarah Chang returned to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center Wednesday night after a four-year absence and showed that she’s become one of the world’s great violinists. She was the featured soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra under guest conductor Peter Oundjian, who was making his SPAC debut.

After a breezy Mozart Overture to “The Marriage of Figaro,” Chang came out to play Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor (1947-48) — one of the most difficult works in the repertoire and one that she admitted that she hadn’t tackled until she was in her early 20s (she’s 29 now). She dressed for the occasion in a gold and brown striped, strapless extravaganza made for her by Kruszynska Couture of London. Its gold glitter matched her performance.

Shostakovich had finished the four-movement work during the cultural crackdown that existed in the Soviet Union after World War II. In these years until Stalin died in 1953, Stalin played cat and mouse with Shostakovich, approving some works and forbidding the performance of others. This concerto was not premiered until 1955 and immediately impressed violinists with its virtuosic technical demands and needs for deep emotional and intellectual dedication.

Chang has gone the distance with these requirements. She took the concerto by storm with unrelenting intensity, passion, power and an awe-inspiring memory for the thousands of notes she had to play. Much of the work has a dark, melancholy tone but the angst, loneliness and fury often surface in demonic ways.

The first movement is like a cry in the wilderness with long abstract lines in the violin that sometimes soar and other times interweave dramatically with the orchestra, whose part is almost as difficult. The second was quirky and jumped around at very fast tempos. It was like a mad dance with hard licks in the orchestra and Chang who was playing a frenzy of notes.

The third movement had a slower brass chorale, lyricism and an interesting dialogue without the orchestra between a soft timpani and an introspective Chang that set the stage for another great masterpiece: the very long and complex cadenza. Chang started slowly with a rich tone and gradually built to a fury, which led into the gypsy-like, bitingly sarcastic and devilish fourth movement. Chang was a wonder.

The concerto is not for the faint hearted. Even more was that Oundjian has never conducted the work. Yet, with only one rehearsal, not a pulse was out of sync. The orchestra sounded fabulous, balances were rarely an issue, and Chang could focus on the job at hand.

The orchestra could take a breather with Brahms’ Symphony No. 2. Oundjian set conservative tempos in the first two movements that favored the lyrical elements but made the drama a little heavy. The orchestra played with a seamless ensemble. Tempos were a bit brighter for the last two movements, which lightened the sound and propelled the music forward better. The final page was especially strong.

Tonight is “Wicked Divas” with conductor Steven Reineke and vocalists Erin Mackey and Julia Murney.