in: Reviews

August 10, 2010

Encore from Hilary Hahn, Firebird Shines Under Shi-Yeon Sung

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The Boston Symphony brass filled the air on this perfect mid-summer night in a rousing performance of the Prelude to Act III of Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin to open the concert on August 7 at Tanglewood. It set the stage for the centerpiece of the evening’s performance conducted by Shi-Yeon Sung – Jean Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D minor performed by the superstar Hilary Hahn.

Ms. Hahn’s technique is sensational and her playing is exquisitely refined. She was fairly laid back and the phrasing was never exaggerated. She began the Allegro moderato with a tender approach that evolved to the mysterious over the brooding timpani accompaniment. Arpeggios were articulated with clarity yet richly legato. With an economical use of the bow and a slow, deliberate stroke in the Allegro moderato and Adagio di molto, she saved her most passionate expression for the last movement Allegro. The horn section was outstanding in the Adagio. The third movement was introduced by low strings and an electrifying pulse in the timpani (played by Daniel Bauch, the newest member of the percussion section) that created dramatic tension and anticipation.

The audience responded with a rapturous ovation and was rewarded with the “Sarabande” from Bach’s D minor Partita as an encore. Ms Hahn played this with a sense of ease in one long, perfectly shaped phrase. Perhaps because the concert was subject to outdoor summer conditions, she played on a modern Moes and Moes violin, which to my ears did not have as wide a range of color, instead of her customary Vuillaume.

After intermission we were treated to a performance of Aaron Copland’s Quiet City, which the program notes described as originating from “a score of incidental music for a socially conscious play written by Irwin Shaw… representing the fear and restlessness of the characters.” Boston Symphony Principal Trumpet Thomas Rolfs played sensitively with luster and depth. English horn Principal Robert Sheena’s enigmatic phrasing began by matching the tone of the strings’ underlay and then emerging with such subtlety that one could hardly define at which point the English horn could be distinctly heard. In this simple piece the greatest fascination for me was the soft contrast of timbres as the motifs were passed back and forth between the two soloists.

For the finale of her last scheduled concert as assistant conductor of the BSO, Shi-Yeon Sung chose Igor Stravinsky’s Suite from The Firebird —the 1919 version. Together the conductor and orchestra exploited a full range of effects. The balance was marred by the frighteningly over-miked tuba that sounded like it was hovering overhead, 20 feet beyond the stage. Highlights of Stravinsky’s brilliant orchestration were the ominous sounds of the basses; the eerie vibrato produced by oboist John Ferrillo in the introduction; the perfectly placed and shaped glissandi and warm, rich chords of Jessica Zhou, harpist, in the “Dance and Variation” of the Firebird; the xylophone solo by Will Hudgins and trombone slides in the “Infernal Dance”; the bassoon, oboe and cello (Mssrs. Svoboda, Ferrillo and Eskin) laying back of the beat in the “Berceuse”; and the horn solo beginning the “Finale,” beautifully played by Richard Sebring. Ms. Sung was especially in her element, making this the most exciting performance of the evening.

Elizabeth Morse, principal harpist of the Berkshire Symphony Orchestra and formally principal harpist of Rhode Island Philharmonic, is on the faculty of Williams College.

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