Magnificent music - with strings attached

01.27.08
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
The Denver Post

In a magical night of magnificent music-making, virtuoso violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and Scotsman Douglas Boyd - the symphony's new and wonderfully gifted principal guest conductor - delivered an experience of breathless beauty at Boettcher Concert Hall on Friday.

If there was any doubt the veteran violinist - who turned 47 this month - is at the pinnacle of her career, her fine and ferocious reading of Dmitri Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1 proved her enduring prominence as one of the world's top talents.

Exuding her trademark showmanship, distinctive flair and overt emotiveness, Salerno-Sonnenberg swayed, stomped and danced her way through the pervasively dark and menacing work - a stance against oppressive Stalinist Russia. In the reflective and gently brooding Nocturne movement, her bow seemed to scarcely touch the strings of her instrument, yet resulted in a round, luminous sound that easily reverberated throughout the hall.

Under Boyd's skilled and carefully sculpted command, the musicians - especially the violins and woodwinds - proficiently kept pace with Salerno-Sonnenberg as she sexily slurred her way through sideways melodies and electrifyingly rhythms. Fully engaged in the scherzo's playful sarcasm, she embodied its devilish character with penetrating energy and consummate technical dexterity.

But it wasn't until the poignant passacaglia that Salerno-Sonnenberg's innately passionate artistic approach came fully to light. Upon a desolate theme exquisitely rendered by the woodwinds, she infused the movement's lovely main theme in a spellbinding, perfectly held ratio of tension and warm reprieve.

After pulling out all the stops in the work's dazzling cadenza, Salerno-Sonnenberg's furious flight through the manic, short-lived Burlesca finale brought the audience to its feet in one fell swoop.

While such a stellar performance of the world-class soloist is hard to beat, Boyd went on to direct the in a white-hot reading of Igor Stravinsky's psychologically exhilarating and once-scandalous "Rite of Spring." Introducing the two-section ballet score with a few droll, well-chosen remarks, Boyd then delved full throttle into the work's thorough, brutally bracing exploration of mortal emotions.

Sometimes brusque, sometimes diabolical and sometimes divinely reverent, the 33-minute work illuminates even the most complex human sensibilities through the composer's cunning, revolutionary employment of the extremes of instrumental ranges. Boyd's elastic handling of strident sonorities, shifting accents and unpredictably changing meters was spot-on, as was the orchestra's gripping response thereto.

The evening opened with a fluid and forceful reading of Benjamin Britten's "Four Sea Interludes" from his opera "Peter Grimes." Boyd's pacing of the grandiose "Storm" movement was especially compelling.