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Violin virtuosos Koh and Laredo join ASO for installment of 'Two x Four' project Friday at Alys Stephens Center; repeats tonight

Jennifer Koh

By Michael Huebner

The Jennifer Koh-Jaime Laredo project, “Two x Four,” came to Alabama Friday, the two violin violinists soloing in J.S. Bach's sublime Concerto in D minor for Two Violins, then tackling British composer Anna Clyne's lyric-to-dissonant “Prince of Clouds.”

Robert Treviño was the Alabama Symphony's guest conductor for the Masterworks concert, though he took time off during the Bach concerto, for which Laredo was the cue-giver in chief. It's a role Laredo is accustomed to, and did once before with ASO in 2007 when he played viola opposite ASO concertmaster Daniel Szasz in Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante in E flat.

Once mentor and student at the Curtis Institute, Laredo and Koh have become collaborators. Each has a distinctive sound, Laredo's brightness and strong accents contrasting with Koh's sweetness and subtlety. Yet when coming together in Bach's closely aligned imitation, they were a perfect match. The pared-down orchestra, reduced to 20 strings and harpsichord, was rough around the edges in spots, particularly in the fast-paced opening and closing movements, but overall this was joyful and engaging listening on an intimate scale, the highlights coming in the gorgeous give-and-take between soloists in the slow movement.

Clyne's “Prince of Clouds,” a commission for this project, was just as engaging. A series of restful harmonies sets the stage, but a strident storm quickly brews. Ominous drones, together with fluid meanderings in the upper strings, raise the work's tension with pulsating repeated rhythms. Laredo and Koh trade solos much in the same imitative fashion as the Bach, though their converging and departing are in a modern language. A return to the soft clarity of the opening brings it to a satisfying close.

Treviño opened the concert with Prokofiev's “Classical Symphony” (1917) and closed with Schumann's Symphony No. 2, each with very different results.

The usually tight ASO strings seemed uncomfortable with Treviño's laboriously slow tempo in the Allegro con brio opening movement, and never quite reached the level of excitement this music can generate. The Larghetto and Gavotte fared better, but only in the Molto vivace finale did this music come alive, its surging crescendos and sharp accents reaching the orchestra's potential and intentions of the young Prokofiev.

Treviño's thorough understanding of the Schumann symphony was clear from the start. Shape, texture and balance were all abundantly apparent, subtle rises and falls in tempo and dynamic surges contributing to the work's overall architecture.

The Scherzo, with its quickness and intricacy, is never easy to render, but this was right on target, the orchestra – the strings in particular – responding to Treviño's clear vision and suave conducting movements with clarity and precision. The Adagio had an extra dose of melancholy, augmented by touching solos from all of the woodwind soloists, led by oboist James Sullivan.

Some of the orchestra's finest playing all season came in the finale. The strings had an unusual depth and sheen, the winds matching them gesture for gesture, Treviño shaping it with expressive movements. Special kudos go to ASO's seldom heralded timpanist, Jay Burnham, whose powerful mallet work infused added power to the final few measures.