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Violinist Chee-Yun, MSO deliver a night of emotion

Mobile Press-Register

By Thomas B. Harrison

MOBILE, Alabama -- The mood Saturday evening seemed a bit low-key, although the gorgeous spring weather was inviting and the music inside the Saenger Theatre was incomparable.

An audience of 1,260 was treated to a riveting display of virtuosity by Korean-born violinist Chee-Yun, who performed Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, Op. 64 in E minor on a Stradivarius “Ex-Strauss” (Cremona, 1708) on loan from Samsung Corp.

Chee-Yun’s performance was as impressive as her flame-red gown, and easily one of this season’s highlights. Thunderous applause brought her back onstage for an encore.

The program also featured the Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 (“Pathétique”) by Tchaikovsky, which conductor Scott Speck told the audience has been described as the composer’s “suicide note.” The opening piece, “Façades” by Philip Glass, seemed almost cheery in comparison.

Perhaps the music reflected our collective concerns about events half a world away, specifically in Japan and Libya. Still, the inspiration and reassurance of beautiful music is a balm for the soul in turbulent times.

The MSO will present violinist Chee-Yun in the second of two concerts at 2:30 p.m. March 20 at the Saenger Theatre, downtown Mobile. (See information box.)

Chee-Yun wasted no time demonstrating why the Mendelssohn concerto enjoys such immense popularity. From its opening Allegro molto appassionato, we are under the spell of composer and violinist, who leapt right into the main theme sans lengthy orchestral intro — an infrequent occurrence in classical music.

As is often noted in critical writing about this work, Mendelssohn blended what has been labeled “a Schubert-like lyrical intensity” with innovations such as the emphasis on a kind of musical colloquy between soloist and orchestra, and that was evident Saturday night.

At times during the opening movement, Chee-Yun and the MSO musicians seemed engaged in wordless conversation, even though the movement certainly offered the violinist more than a few opportunities to dazzle. Her fingering was fluid and amazingly deft; her bowing was precise and emphatic. She stood so close to Speck that the Maestro could have touched the strings with fingertips.

The three movements play more or less seamlessly, the first and second (Andante) separated only by a single note from the bassoon that leads into a languid reverie that sets up the breathless finale, the Allegretto non troppo. The closing movement is quite a little showpiece, and Chee-Yun didn’t waste a single note. After the stately first and serene second movements, the closer seemed almost giddy and playful.

Chee-Yun delivered Mendelssohn’s exuberant finale with the joy of an artist, with obvious love but devoid of affectation. The audience recognized her greatness and called her back to the stage with cheers and applause. Impressed by the response, the violinist then played a magnificent encore, Fritz Kreisler’s “Recitativo and Scherzo-Caprice.” Op. 6. Bravissimo.

It seems almost miserly to underplay Tchaikovsky’s final symphony, the “Pathétique,” which the orchestra played wonderfully. The opening Adagio established the melancholy nature of the work, which begins with the somber sound of basses and morphs into the cries, moans and whispers of a soul in distress.

The movement concluded somewhat raggedly, with a distracting noise (source unknown) and a weak finish in the brass.

In remarks to the audience preceding the Symphony No. 6, Speck suggested that it would be more than appropriate for the audience to vent their joy and pleasure with the third movement (Allegro molto vivace), which delivers the musical pyrotechnics we expect from Tchaikovsky. The Saenger patrons obliged, but the explosion of appreciation was more of a muffled roar.

Still, there is no denying the power and gravitas of the “Pathétique,” which deserves a closer look at a later date.

The evening began with “Façades” which composer Philip Glass wrote originally as part of the score for Godfrey Reggio’s extraordinary 1982 documentary “Koyaanisqatsi” (“Life Out of Balance”). The piece was never used for the film and ended up on the “Glassworks” chamber music CD.

Slightly more than seven minutes long, “Façades” became a staple of the Philip Glass Ensemble live performances and was included in “Glasspieces” presented in spring 1990 at New York City Ballet, with choreography by Jerome Robbins. The piece is vintage Glass, gently repetitive and utterly hypnotic, and it establish a tone of restraint that carried through the evening.

Mobile audiences do not always embrace “new” music -- “Façades” is a mere 30 years old -- but those in attendance delivered an enthusiastic response. Good for them.