Chee-Yun Adds Radiance, Dazzle To Strong South Florida Symphony Show
By Greg Stepanich
Friday – October 9th, 2010
The South Florida Symphony, joined by the radiant playing of guest violinist Chee-Yun, opened the orchestral part of the new season with a concert of auspicious promise Thursday night in Fort Lauderdale.
The orchestra, which until very recently was the Key West Symphony, turned out to be far better than would reasonably be expected for a regional band of short history and relatively low profile. Here was a group with a polished, powerful, fat string sound; strong, sometimes brilliant, playing from winds, brass and percussion; and a gratifying unity of ensemble.
They were led with big-picture vigor and small-picture nuance by Sebrina Maria Alfonso, and with only minor exceptions played the canonical repertory on Thursday’s program – Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture, Elgar’s Enigma Variations and the Violin Concerto of Beethoven – with the same kind of accomplishment and seriousness of purpose that announces distinguished music-making.
But the audience of about 200 people at the Broward Center’s Amaturo Theatre gave its heart to Chee-Yun, the standout South Korean-born violinist (full name: Kim Chee Yun) whose impressive career includes important recordings of the Penderecki violin concerti as well as appearances in recital, chamber settings such as the Spoleto USA festival, and as soloist with orchestra in major concert halls around the world. “Bring your friends next time!” she said, to laughter, in charming preferatory remarks to the audience before giving a beautiful, intense reading of the Beethoven concerto (in D, Op. 61).
Chee-Yun’s technique is as dazzling and formidable as befits an Avery Fisher career grant winner and a student of Juilliard’s legendary Dorothy DeLay, and in the two virtuoso cadenzas she chose for the Beethoven – Nathan Milstein’s in the first movement, Fritz Kreisler’s in the third – she brought to a halt whatever spectator fidgeting there might have been. What makes her special is the highly emotional quality she brings to every musical utterance; each individual note in the many recurrences of the first movement’s central five-note motif was played with a fullness of tone that made them speak with immediacy and warmth.
Similarly, in the opening bars of the finale, she leaned into the second half of the main theme, making it more than a way station on the road to the next repeat of the rondo. Subtle touches, but touches of the kind that make perfect sense for this singular concerto, which is virtually all substance and no flash, and in which every phrase has to tell.
The orchestra proved to be a fine partner with its soloist, who collaborated clearly with Alfonso at important transitions, and who smiled broadly at the first violins as they turned into her backup band for the beginning of the finale. Alfonso’s tempos were somewhat sluggish in places, and the second movement had a noticeable heaviness at the bottom that weighed things down somewhat. There were some tuning questions in the first wind entrance of the concerto, and the horns fell somewhat short in the exposed four-note theme of the second movement, over which the violin has its first entrance.
These quibbles aside, this was a performance that was marked by interpretational friendliness, geniality and communicative urgency, with little of the remoteness and Classical severity its primary-colors language sometimes engenders. Chee-Yun’s refreshing choice of cadenzas made it even better, even if the first bars of Milstein’s cadenza were perhaps a little too violent, and nudged the performance somewhat off balance.
Refreshing, too, was the word for Chee-Yun’s encore, which she announced would be by Kreisler. Yet she played not the lighthearted Kreisler of Schön Rosmarin or Liebesfreud, but instead the serious, substantive Kreisler of the Recitativo and Scherzo-Caprice (Op. 6), a piece that suggests the composer could have written an Ysaÿe-style sonata had he so wished. Chee-Yun played it marvelously well, relishing its harmonic slipperiness in the recitative, and dashing off the spiccati and runs of the scherzo with a bigness of tone that made the precision of her playing even more noticeable.
The second half of the program was devoted to the Enigma Variations (Op. 36) of Elgar, a writer who demands huge orchestral forces, and which the South Florida Symphony was happy to provide. Alfonso led an excellent performance of this great English masterwork in every important respect, especially in its devotion to the blazing instrumental color this music requires. Some of the pauses between individual variations were somewhat protracted, which broke the spell temporarily, but in general this reading of the work had all the variety of style and mood that help make it so attractive.
There was fine solo work from violist Arman Alpyspaev, cellist Katherine Kayaian, and bassoonist Adrian Morejon, and the brass section brought a full measure of sonic glory to Elgar’s climactic passages. Alfonso also did something smart with the celebrated Nimrod variation (No. 9) by taking it somewhat faster than usual, which avoided sentimentality and also helped her build very carefully and surely to a huge but not overblown peak.
Thursday’s concert opened with a fine performance of the Academic Festival Overture (Op. 80) of Brahms. Alfonso led a clean, classic reading of this popular overture, one that bustled along amiably in the early going and opened up all the stops for the Gaudeamus igitur at the close.
This was an exciting and rewarding evening of music, played by an orchestra composed of youngish professionals from across the country who regularly perform in groups such as the Baltimore and Charleston symphonies, and who were well-led by a good conductor who keeps a firm hand on the tiller. In that sense, the South Florida Symphony is only a regional orchestra in name, but in the absence of our own full-size homegrown ensemble to replace the Florida Philharmonic, Thursday’s concert showed that the South Florida might be the best bet outside the New World Symphony toward filling that gap in our local musical life.
After all, any group that can attract soloists of the caliber of Chee-Yun – and the fine Canadian violinist Lara St. John performs with the group in December – is one to be reckoned with.