Celebrated violinist nearly steals Festival del Sole show

07.23.11
Sarah Chang
Napa Valley Register

By L. Pierce Carson

Korean/American violinist Sarah Chang is acclaimed the world over as one of classical music’s most captivating and gifted performers. One of the most remarkable violinists of any generation, she has matured into a young artist whose musical insight, technical virtuosity and emotional range continue to make audiences sit up and take notice.

Appearing in the music capitals of Asia, Europe and the Americas, she has collaborated with most major orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Symphony to name but a few.

Midweek, Chang was in the Napa Valley appearing as guest soloist with the Russian National Orchestra at Castello di Amorosa, one of the sold-out events at this year’s Festival del Sole.

The first of two appearances at this year’s festival, the Wednesday night program had Chang featured as soloist for a new orchestral suite based on Leonard Bernstein’s enduring 1950’s Broadway score for “West Side Story.”

Debates aside about whether or not the soloist’s talents were wasted on an urban pastiche retooled from dance numbers and haunting love songs from a great American musical, Chang, in a dazzling 15-minute performance, all but stole the show.

That’s not to say the Russian National Orchestra was laying down on the job, or that the American debut of Israeli conductor Omer Wellber was just so much chopped liver. Far from it.

It’s just that Chang is a stunning musician, as easy on the eye as she is on the ear. For the second performance of film composer David Newman’s “West Side Story Suite” anywhere, Chang could do no wrong.

Fiddling away as the 61-piece orchestra rumbled through the mambo machinations of the “Dance at the Gym,” Chang, clad in a fiery red, skintight sheath, seemed right at home. Her violin cried with the heartache of “I Have A Love,” reinforced the ageless beauty in “Maria” and “Tonight” and underscored the promise of “Somewhere.”

Who knows? The Jets and Sharks might have called a truce if Chang had been added to the roll call under the freeway.

Wellber and the Russians barreled through the Bernstein-based score like true Broadway veterans, although at one point the included vestiges of “Cool” sounded as if they’d been run through the borscht belt.

It appeared Chang enjoyed the performance as much as the audience did. After all, if Joshua Bell can play Bernstein on Broadway, why not Sarah Chang? A standing ovation followed the performance, of course.

A program change had Wellber and the Russian National Orchestra opening Wednesday night’s program with Prokofiev’s “Symphony No. 1 in D Major.” Dubbed “the classical symphony,” this was the composer’s deliberate attempt to write with 18th century grace and wit, much as Mozart did. Many feel it’s an unflawed masterpiece. I must admit it’s difficult not to fall in love with its serene beauty.

This was a most persuasive reading, finely shaped by Wellber. The violins were exquisitely gentle at their poised entry in the Larghetto, yet spirited in the outer movements. The finale proved to be mercurial.

Beethoven’s lyrical “Symphony No. 4 in B-Flat Major” is a winning work, although much more modest than the composer’s ground-breaking Third.

For some reason, this gentle, reflective symphony is the least played of the nine.

With the setting sun, the acoustics at Castello di Amorosa seemed to dramatically improve. Warm but not overly romantic, Wellber led the articulate Russian orchestra through a splendid performance.

From the initial downbeat, the work was immediately full of tension; the Allegro vigorous without being over-driven, and the rapt Adagio  executed beautifully. We were able to enjoy the sprightliness of the Scherzo, with noted delicacy from wind and strings carrying us into the finale, full of energy and fire.

An exceptional conductor. An outstanding orchestra. A tremendous soloist. All came together for another first-rate Festival del Sole program at the castle.