Fans of student violinist Ariel Mitnick, winner of the Yannatos Concerto Competition, packed the upper reaches of Sanders Theater in anticipation of her performance of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, op 14 (1939). The second Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra concert of the season, conducted by Federico Cortese, was dedicated to the memory of former longtime conductor, James Yannatos, who died in October.
Mitnick, a 20-year-old junior, is a student in the Harvard/New England Conservatory BA/MM program. Playing with poise and aplomb, Mitnick delivered an intelligent and often spirited performance of Barber’s Violin Concert, which features a solo opening for the violin in the first movement, one of his loveliest, lushest creations. In the second movement, a lyrical theme engages both the soloist and the various instrumental sections of the orchestra. The lushness of the sizable string section occasionally pushed somewhat aggressively to the forefront, but Mitnick proved master of the piece and her instrument in the third movement, in which Barber’s main material is a running line of triplets. The movement shifts from one key to another and requires considerable virtuosity of which Mitnick showed herself quite capable. She was rewarded with a standing ovation and enthusiastic foot stamping, a hallmark of Harvard audiences. Kudos also are due to clarinetist Stefan Botarelli.
The second piece on the program, Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, “Pathétique,” required all the energy of both orchestra and conductor. The performance opened with a wonderful slow, mysterious start — the result of divided basses. Cortese brought out very nimble handling of phrasing, soft and delicate leading into rounded explosions of sound, of this incredibly dramatic movement, all the way from pppppp to ffff. The beginning of the second movement was light, dance-like. Following the end of the spirited third movement (which sounds as though it is the final movement), conductor Cortese leaned against the podium as though to gather strength for the final Adagio. (The piece is unusual in that it both begins and ends with Adagio movements.) Then the fourth movement opened with a beautiful, poignant swell from the orchestra. It is sometimes thought that the symphony is suggestive of Tchaikovsky’s death, thought by some to have been a suicide. The orchestra gave full justice to the dark drama of Tchaikovsky’s orchestration, which suggests tragedy and grief. The horns and the percussion have their exciting moments in the third movement, but it is the cellos and basses that quietly usher out the final theme. Throughout, the strings, and particularly the cellos, played with confidence and ease.
The next HRO concert will take place Saturday, March 3, 2012 and will present Acts 2 and 3 of Puccini’s Tosca.