“His bow perfectly talks. It remonstrates, supplicates, answers, holds a dialogue… We are sure that with a given subject, or even without it, [his] best playing could be construed into discourse by any imaginative person.”
The English critic Leigh Hunt wrote these words in 1831 in praise of Niccolò Paganini, that 19th century violin phenomenon from whom even Franz Liszt could take notes on the business of being a celebrity virtuoso. Much of the same could be said of rising star In Mo Yang’s performance of Paganini’s own Violin Concerto No. 1 this past Saturday evening at Jordan Hall with Longwood Symphony Orchestra. The programming could not be more suitable for this artist: earlier this year, Yang took First Prize at the 54th International Violin Competition “Premio Paganini” in Genoa, adding to the 20-year-old’s growing list of professional accomplishments. Saturday’s concert, given to benefit Shattuck Partners, satisfied Longwood’s mission of raising awareness of and funds for area medical charities, and also to introduce a young musical star poised to become a supernova.
The ensemble, under the baton of Music Director Ronald Feldman, is known for its thought-provoking and colorful programming; in addition to the Paganini concerto, Saturday’s concert included a Rossini favorite and a lesser-known suite by Stravinsky. Proceedings began with that perennial crowd pleaser, the overture to The Barber of Seville. The work’s cultural omnipresence has made it an easy target for parody; everyone from Bugs Bunny to the Beatles seems to have taken a crack at it. Still, it always a joy to play and great fun to hear in the concert hall. Alas, LSO displayed little of the manic exuberance that gives this piece is enduring charm. The pace was rather more leisurely and deliberate than warranted (though one felt that articulations might suffer if the players were up to tempo) while a lack of legato marred the overture’s more fluid melodic passages. A narrowed dynamic range robbed the closing bars of their inherent theatricality, resulting in a somewhat anticlimactic finale.
Happily, the orchestra’s reading of Stravinsky’s Divertimento, Suite from The Fairy’s Kiss was far more effective. The ballet on which this suite is based takes its scenario from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy-tale The Ice Maiden. It was written as an homage to Tchaikovsky, one of Stravinsky’s boyhood idols, and is something of an anomaly in the latter’s output in the degree to which the younger composer subjugates his personality to that of the elder. The score reworks and re-imagines several of Tchaikovsky’s melodies and themes, resulting in a not always seamless fusion of strikingly different styles. Fortunately the Orchestra showed a real affinity for each composer, conjuring a composite sound world that was often charming, sometimes coarse, but always intriguing. Soft, lyrical utterances from the flutes and violins established a world of mystery and enchantment from the first. Principal cellist Joseph Rovine provided more than one heart-rending solo in the suite’s most Romantic moments, though ultimately it was the woodwinds who brought magic to this Kiss. The clarinets oozed sensuality throughout, particularly in the Adagio of the fourth movement, while the flutes and piccolo displayed particular melodic sensitivity, playing with a characteristically bright Stravinskian timbre. The brass, though pleasingly vigorous, were somewhat more boisterous than necessary, resulting at times in wobbly intonations. The ensemble fractured at moments as the orchestra struggled with tempi, but these episodes were short-lived. By the final movement, forces had fully joined together, moving towards a unified, delightfully energetic Coda.
Saving the best for last, LSO arrived at the Violin Concerto, the undisputed highlight of the evening. For Yang, currently an undergraduate at New England Conservatory, this was a home game, and he made his first appearance with an almost casual air, his demeanor hinting at nothing of the electrifying display that was to come. The boyish, lanky soloist ambled onto the stage, the picture of polite diffidence. He nodded slightly and gave a small smile in appreciation of the audience’s warm reception, and stood with shoulders stooped and eyes downcast as the orchestra essayed the concerto’s opening bars. Upon hearing his cue, however, he swept up his instrument, and was instantly transformed into an entirely different character, the young virtuoso in full command of his powers. In that moment, Yang appeared to seize control of the entire orchestra. He galvanized them, raising the performance level to unforeseen heights. The ensemble sounded with new spirit and unity of purpose, rising to the challenge issued by their preternaturally gifted colleague. Unsurprisingly, the violins were most eager to take up the gauntlet, though the percussion and timpani, having lacked somewhat in finesse early in the evening, gave adroit, laser-focused readings of their parts, adding just enough thunder to the texture.
One of the qualities that sets Yang apart from his peers is the uncanny degree to which his playing mimics vocal lines and spoken texts; he seems to speak through the violin. This quality recalls Paganini’s own performance style and is particularly well suited to his composition, which owes much to the influence of Rossini. Yang has a singer’s sense of melody and an incredible ear for phrasing, cherishing the shape of every line and giving each its own character. He is an eloquent instrumentalist if there ever was one, his cadenzas resembling the exclamations of a fine orator more than abstract eruptions of musical special effects. What is more, his playing is awash with color in myriad subtle gradations; he paints full landscapes using bow instead of brush. His agility is remarkable, and he effortlessly shifts between playing techniques with nimble, balletic grace. The audience remained riveted to their seats through to the last double bar line, at which point, unsurprisingly, they rose swiftly to their feet. Yang, a bashful undergraduate once again, gratefully acknowledged their roaring applause and obliged with a short encore.
Much like his 19th-century predecessor, Yang’s talent invites comparison to the supernatural; as such, it is that much more gratifying to note that human sympathy seems to drive his artistic goals. In a 2014 interview with Karen Campbell of the Boston Globe, the violinist described a desire to use his music making for a humanitarian purpose, citing the unusual joy and satisfaction he’d felt upon playing for a small audience of patients at a senior center. The experience, he said, was even more thrilling than playing to an audience of two thousand classical music lovers in a Seoul concert hall. So prodigiously gifted a musician, poised on the brink of an important international solo career, Yang could be forgiven for thinking exclusively in careerist terms. Instead, he seeks to communicate with as wide and diverse an audience as possible. How fitting then, that he should join the Longwood Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble composed almost entirely of healthcare professionals, and one that has maintained the motto of “Healing The Community Through Music” for the past 33 seasons.