Quan Yuan was something to hear on Wednesday night as he played Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with the NEC Philharmonia in Jordan Hall. The performance was part of the Britten centennial celebration at NEC, and it was a welcome chance to become acquainted with this piece and with this soloist.
Yuan, the winner of NEC’s most recent concerto competition, and already the holder of a pretty substantial performance resume, was greeted with shouts of “bravo” from the balcony before even playing a note. But he projected a quality of humble assuredness through his stage presence that carried over well into his playing. This is a steely, serious, concerto with long stretches of stasis from which surprising moments and colors suddenly pop with chilling effect. The first movement has a lyrical bent but it’s built on a deeply uneasy foundation. The second movement is a scherzo with interesting flips and exchanges between violin and ensemble and with beautiful, unusual, orchestrational choices. The passacaglia finale is monumental, verging on the grotesque, and it’s hard to say if the ending is happy or sad. Either way, it gets under your skin and into your bones.
Yuan roamed over the spooky terrain with a deep tone and moments of flash at just the right spots. Not just technically pristine, he also seemed to find a good mesh with his fellow students in the orchestra and to forge a strong interpretive connection with Hugh Wolff on the podium. This concerto might have been a special programming request for the centennial, but hopefully it will stay in Yuan’s repertoire. He suits it well.
The second half of the program was dedicated to orchestral selections from Berlioz’s Romeo et Juliette, a terrible piece of music, especially when presented without its choral movements as it was on Wednesday. To be sure, the orchestra sounded excellent under Wolff’s baton as they tore through the combat of Montagues and Capulets, a ball, the famous love scene, Queen Mab’s scherzo, and the final deaths in the tomb – but no favors can save this music from itself. Berlioz may not be known for subtlety, but must he always seize on the most literal musical treatment of a dramatic moment? Is he constitutionally compelled to avoid subtext and nuance at all costs?
Shakespeare deserves better. (And has received better from Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and Bernstein.) Even projected titles explaining the unseen action, like silent movie cards without the film, didn’t help this piece to sustain interest. Every movement contained a surfeit of dead space, and the bland and oddly fragmented lines never coalesced to take flight or impress on the memory. You would think that anything based on Romeo and Juliet would come prepackaged to tug the heartstrings or at least make you feel something. But, curiously enough, it was the purely abstract music on this program—the Britten Concerto—that felt truly moving and alive.