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Violinist Chee-Yun gives life to complicated concerto for Harrisburg Symphony

The Sentinel

By David Dunkle

When Peter Tchaikovsky created his Violin Concerto in 1878, the violinist he dedicated it to, one Leopold Auer, declined to play it, calling parts of it unworkable.

It wasn’t until 1881 that the violinist Adolph Brodsky finally premiered the complex work in Vienna, and still some critics were not enamored. One called it “long and pretentious.”

Over the years, admiration for the piece has grown to the point that it is now one of the most highly regarded violin concertos in the classical repertoire, a guaranteed crowd pleaser in the hands of a master.

You can place Korean-born violinist Chee-Yun on that list. Her performance of this wickedly challenging composition was nothing short of scintillating on Saturday night at The Forum in downtown Harrisburg. Her finger work, bowing and artistry were uniformly fantastic.

Chee-Yun’s performance was part of Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra’s third Masterworks concert of the 2012-13 season. The show, which also features the Prelude to Richard Wagner’s comic opera “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg” and Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 3, will be repeated at 3 p.m. today in The Forum.

The gem of the evening on Saturday was Chee-Yun’s performance, helped along handsomely by HSO and maestro Stuart Malina. Like many Tchaikovsky works, the concerto is a flowery piece, and the wise violinist avoids taking it over the top.

Chee-Yun, who began winning major violin competitions when she was just 13, is such a player. Her work is winsome yet strong, with flawless technique married to the warm sounds from her 300-year-old Stradivarius, the “Ex-Strauss.” Following a standing ovation at the conclusion of the concerto, she offered as an encore a stunning solo rendition of Fritz Kreisler’s “Recitativo and Scherzo-Caprice.”

HSO’s varied program features legendary composers at the top of their games, and gives Malina and his talented group of professional musicians plenty to chew on.

Wagner’s prelude to his only comic opera, created in 1868, is relatively short, yet the German master manages to introduce four different themes before tying them together beautifully in the finale. His miniature revs up the entire orchestra engine, leaving no cylinder unfired. Woodwinds, strings and horns blend seamlessly.

Nielsen is generally considered to be Denmark’s finest composer, and his Third Symphony, titled “Sinfonia Espansiva,” is a masterpiece of the Scandanavian style. Like Wagner, Nielsen wields every section of the orchestra in service to his work.

“Espansiva,” created between 1910 and 1911, is fanciful in the beginning before turning more solemn with the introduction of wordless singing provided to HSO by guest artists Sasha Piastro and Jonathan Hays.

HSO’s string section provides a subtle accompaniment when needed - as when Chee-Yun was igniting her pyrotechnics - but is quite capable of bursting forth under the leadership of Malina when required, as in the final movements of Nielsen’s potent composition.