The Celebrity Series of Boston brought violinist Sarah Chang to Symphony Hall on Sunday, October 16 for a recital that perfectly complemented the brisk and sunny autumn afternoon. Chang opened with a pair of violin and piano works by Brahms, beginning with the Sonatensatz (the Scherzo from the F.A.E. Sonata). Sarah Chang and her accompanist Andrew von Oeyen attacked this stormy movement with a gusto that gave momentum to the active passages and urgency to the lyrical melodies. Although she was the soloist of the afternoon, and displayed all the virtuosic skill that is expected, Chang also demonstrated a refreshing understanding of her program as ensemble music, where each instrument has its opportunity to shine in the foreground.
The Brahms Violin Sonata No. 3 in D minor, Opus 108, that dominated the first half of the recital, demonstrated the same verve that Chang and von Oeyen brought to the Scherzo, but this time their passion, while earnest, manifested itself in a tempo that felt a bit rushed and left too little space for expression. The second movement, a stately Adagio, was rendered with a joyful elegance that allowed all of its beauty to shine through. The third movement again demonstrated the integration of the two instruments in an ensemble of equals in which Chang seamlessly shifted between the foreground and background through subtle alterations in dynamic and timbral intensity. Here, again, the stormy side of Brahms was in full force. Chang and van Oeyen masterfully built and released the tension, allowing the listener to feel the full excitement of the theme’s journey through its development and eventual re-emergence all the way through to the energetic final movement.
As in the first half of her recital, Chang opened the second half with a short, but expressive single movement. This time it was contemporary composer Christopher Theofanidis’s Fantasy, a transcription of the second movement of his Violin Concerto, written for Chang and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 2008. This transcription was premiered by Chang and von Oeyen in 2009. The piece began with piano flourishes that suggested medieval modality, atonal chromaticism, and jazz harmonies, and led into a lyrical violin melody that felt right at home with the previous works by Brahms. While these elements gave Chang a perfect opportunity to display all her expressive and technical talents, compositionally I wished for the piece to expand on the harmonic promise of its introduction. Nevertheless, Theofanidis’s Fantasy delivered a satisfying climax of melody and register.
For a smashing finish, Chang closed the program with Cesar Franck’s Sonata in A Major. I have always found something dark, earthy, and slightly biting in the Franck works I have heard, and Chang fully realized these complex moods while marrying them to a charm and elegance that communicated a deep affection for Franck’s world. From the start, Chang gave the lilting theme of the first movement a charming seriousness that set the stage for later intensity. The second movement had a frantic feeling, but this time Chang and von Oeyen found the right degree of urgency without rushing. The third movement’s forceful theme gave the duo a chance to show off both their virtuosity and their expressiveness. Finally, in the fourth movement, Franck lightens the mood and Chang brought out that levity while subtly tempering it with all that has gone before. Here Chang’s expressive skill was in full force as she moved gracefully from expansive romantic passages to the more introspective elements. With all their musical power brought to bear, Chang and von Oeyen rendered the Franck sonata as an intensely dark landscape shot through with beams of light that illuminated its beauty.
In response to the audience’s enthusiasm, Chang and von Oeyen presented three encores: Elgar’s delightfully sweet Salut d’amour, Gardel’s tango Por una cabeza (famously featured in the film Scent of a Woman), and Bach’s Air on a G String, which here was rendered with more of a romantic sensibility in keeping with the rest of the program.
Stefanie Lubkowski is a composer and doctoral candidate at Boston University. She is very active in the Boston new music scene and sits on the board of the New Gallery Concert Series.