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Sarah Chang wows in Barber; CSO superb in Dvorak

Sarah Chang

by Janelle Gelfand

Violinist Sarah Chang, a former prodigy who made her professional debut at age 8, is still remarkable after more than two decades on the concert stage. And happily for the concert-going public, she is still exploring new repertoire.  On Thursday, Chang, 32, was soloist with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in the Barber Violin Concerto, a piece that is new for her this season. She gave it a brilliant and highly individual performance.

Czech Republic-born conductor Jakub Hrusa, 31, music director and chief conductor of the Prague Philharmonia, led the program, which included Dvorak’s Symphony No. 6 and Smetana’s “Sarka.” Remember Hrusa’s name; there’s a reason why Gramophone magazine dubbed him “on the verge of greatness.”

In the evening’s first half, Chang brought extraordinary finesse to the long, lyrical themes of Samuel Barber’s neo-romantic concerto, as her violin wove seamlessly in and out of the orchestral texture. But she also displayed a great deal of intensity in some moments, and her big vibrato lent depth and emotion to her phrasing.

In a rose-pink mermaid gown, the violinist strolled as she played, arched her back as she reached for a high note, and swayed along in the orchestra’s tutti passages.

In the slow movement, the sound she projected on her Guarneri del Gesu violin (which she received from her mentor, Isaac Stern) was stunning. Her playing was breathtaking in the finale, a lightning-quick perpetuum mobile.

Hrusa was an excellent partner, at times slightly too heavy for her sound but careful not to cover it in the tricky finale. Among orchestral soloists, oboist Dwight Parry’s solo in the slow movement was magical.

Hrusa’s leadership in Dvorak’s Symphony No. 6 in D Major was authoritative, clear and engaging, and the result was rich in Bohemian warmth. Although this symphony is not as familiar as the “New World,” it deserves to be heard more often.

Dvorak’s wonderful themes, based on folk tunes from his homeland, flowed one after another, each shaped with care. Details popped out, and the conductor also had an ear for atmosphere, from delicate to moments of sweeping grandeur.

He propelled tempos energetically, yet always with a natural feeling of spontaneity. The scherzo, a “furiant,” was earthy and vigorous, but not overwrought.

The musicians were responsive to his every gesture, and delivered a memorable performance.

The program opened with a lesser-known gem, “Sarka,” from Smetana’s “Ma Vlast.” Written to a legend about love and revenge, it emerged like a mini-tone poem, and Hrusa was a vivid storyteller. The color and sweep of the strings were impressive, and out of the atmosphere emerged a haunting clarinet solo (Benjamin Freimuth).

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