Review: Philharmonic, violinist pair for passionate display

01.15.08
Sarah Chang
The Oklahoman

Passion, the dictionary tells us, is "a strong liking for or devotion to some activity, object or concept." That was the underlying theme and, one assumes, the desired outcome of a recent concert presented by the Oklahoma City Philharmonic. Works by Beethoven, Richard Strauss, Khachaturian and Brahms each dealt with a particular aspect of passion in what was a colorful and vibrant program.

One woman's passion to secure her husband's release from prison provided the plot for "Fidelio," an opera with which Beethoven struggled mightily when it came to composing its overture. He ultimately wrote four, of which the third ("Leonore Overture No. 3") is the most frequently heard. Joel Levine commanded a taut reading of this familiar score, which was further distinguished by principal trumpet Karl Sievers' fine offstage fanfares.

The passion of seduction emerged dramatically in the orchestra's reading of Strauss' "Don Juan." This tone poem is a difficult mosaic to assemble given the fragmentary nature of its musical themes. One finds a corollary in taking apart a complex timepiece. You hope there are no extra pieces left over after you've reassembled it. The orchestra adapted easily to the work's ever-changing moods while displaying Strauss' remarkable palette of color.

The first half concluded with the "Adagio" from the ballet "Spartacus," a 10-minute excerpt that, when written in 1954, put to rest rumors that Khachaturian could write only shallow showpieces such as the driving "Sabre Dance." This is a work of considerable charm, its pacing carefully managed to achieve repeated moments of orchestral bloom.

After intermission, violinist Sarah Chang joined the orchestra for a beautifully rendered performance of the "Violin Concerto in D Major" by Johannes Brahms. In a recent telephone interview, Chang said she had always considered the Brahms "the Everest of violin concertos."

It demands concentration, conviction and technique, but more importantly, a maturity that can only result from years of playing this piece. During its lengthy introduction, Chang appeared mesmerized by the music, swaying back and forth as the orchestra set the stage for her entrance.

Throughout the opening movement, Chang negotiated the difficult passagework with aplomb, frequently ending a dramatic phrase with a flourish of her bow. The heroic moments were particularly impressive, and her playing of the cadenza was solid without unnecessary theatrics.

The central adagio took on a chamber music approach, resulting in a kind of intimacy rarely encountered in such a large venue. In the finale, soloist and orchestra continued their unanimity of approach, with Brahms' gypsy-inspired melodies dancing effortlessly. Together, they scaled this "Everest of violin concertos" with intelligence and determination.

As for passion, the audience members showed theirs during a lengthy ovation that repeatedly brought the soloist back to the stage for bows. Chang's next appearance here will be eagerly awaited.