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Soloist brings enthusiasm to Brahms concerto

03.08.08
Jennifer Koh
The Record

Aaron Copland arose as part the great awakening of American classical composition that took shape in the decades after World War I. Paralleling the broader arrival of the United States on the world stage, these composers believed strongly in music's connection to the surrounding American culture.

As the Stockton Symphony aptly demonstrated Thursday evening in its performance of Copland's "Billy the Kid" suite, the 1940 orchestral arrangement of his 1938 ballet, this distinctly American music extends some familiar techniques of its European parentage.

After opening the concert with Rossini's lively overture to "La Cenerentola," conductor Peter Jaffe led the symphony through Copland's iconic Western-sounding music, drawing out quotations of cowboy songs and other musical traits that sound so obviously American today.

While composers such as Copland could still turn to soaring melodies for good effect, rhythm stands as perhaps the 20th century's most noticeable contribution to classical music. In addition to using an unusual time signature in the presentation of the "Mexican Dance" section, Copland's scoring of the climactic "Gun Battle" section of the suite relies heavily on a battery of percussion instruments to drive the story.

Led by Bob Stover, the symphony's percussionists were clearly up to the task of Copland's complicated scoring, as the performers deftly staged their own elaborate choreography to move among the various instruments as needed. Helped by a powerful brass section, the symphony's performance remained engaging and invigorating.

Copland depicts Billy's death at the end of the suite through the elegiac use of the string section alone. Warmly played by the orchestra, Copland's music has the unexpected task of humanizing Billy and encouraging sympathy for the dead outlaw.

Presenting a very different aesthetic was the symphony's performance of Brahms' Violin Concerto in D major.Soloist Jennifer Koh played the piece with an impressive sense of the work's human character. Though it is firmly entrenched as an icon of 19th century Romantic classical music, Koh ably kept things from turning into a stodgy rehash.

As the soloist burst in on the orchestra's opening music, playing an insistent passage of double-stopped chords, Koh felt every note. She thrust her entire body into every movement of the bow and dramatically took command of the soloist's role. A lengthy cadenza at the end of the first movement also allowed her to demonstrate an impressive level of skill and finesse… Koh nailed the notes that truly count, particularly in the piece's second movement and the thick triple-stopped chords of the third movement, all combining to power the monumental work to a satisfying conclusion.