Big-name touring virtuosi do not always deliver the musical and technical goods, but violinist Hilary Hahn gave incandescent performances with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra in Belk Theater on February 3. Music Director Christof Perick was imaginative in creating a program of rare or seldom-performed works. Those featuring the soloist were welcome breaks from the usual round of the great Romantic and Classical warhorse concertos.
In the 19th century, Louis (Ludwig) Spohr (1784-1859) was a highly esteemed polymath – a violinist, teacher, and conductor. Many credit him as the inventor of the so-called "rehearsal numbers" that allow orchestra players quickly to get to the same starting point. He was also a pioneer in the use of a baton. Most of his huge catalog of concertos and chamber music fell into obscurity after his death. His fine craftsmanship and uneven thematic inspiration were overshadowed by more innovative creations of composers such as Beethoven and Brahms.
Spohr's Violin Concerto No. 8 in A Minor, Op. 47 ("Gesangsszene," or "Vocal Scene"), daringly experimental in 1816, has managed to hang onto the edge of the repertory. The composer eschewed the standard form involving three independent movements (in this work, slow-fast-slow), and broke down the sections. In this concerto, each movement departs from the norm and is formally incomplete, but Spohr makes each section continuous with the next, creating a seamless whole. In contrast to the conventional soloist-versus-orchestra setup, with an emphasis on drama, the violin is treated as a singer in an operatic scene, by turns soaring with gentle lyricism, reflective, ruminative, briefly fiery, or heroic. For many years, only a few violinists – including Heifetz – kept Op. 47 in their repertory. This performance was a first for the CSO, and I suspect it was the first professional reading in the state. Hahn's beguiling playing drew in and hooked the listeners. A blog for violinists hints that Hahn will pair this concerto with some works by Paganini on a CD about to be issued. Snatch it up quickly, because the historic Heifetz recording appears to be out of print. Hahn's interpretation will be difficult to surpass.
Although a premiere for Charlotte, Ralph Vaughan Williams seraphic "The Lark Ascending," for violin and orchestra (1914, rev. 1920) has received some fine performances throughout the Piedmont. This ethereal and extraordinarily tranquil work was inspired by the first couple of stanzas from George Meredith's Poems and Lyrics of the Joy of the Earth. Cadenzas for the soloist, with high, floating music, anchor each end of the piece's "arch-like" structure.
Hahn's playing of the two works was breathtaking. The flawless purity of her sustained and evenly-focused pitch set a new benchmark. Her ability to refine and float a choice selection of dynamics from a hushed piano to a scarcely-believable pianissimo almost defied the senses. Double stops were cleanly executed and tossed off, seemingly without effort. A chamber music-like attention for her orchestral colleagues' important solos revealed Hahn's seasoned musicianship. During her encore – a sublime reading of the Saraband from Bach's Partita No. 2, in d minor – time seemed to stand still.
Perick led the orchestra in lockstep with his soloist, conjuring playing that was just as nuanced and refined as Hahn's. Orchestral balances with the soloist were extraordinary. I had never heard – in a live performance – playing as hushed and magical as the musicians achieved during the Vaughan Williams.
Romantic orchestral fare began and ended the concert, sandwiching Hahn's selections. The same high standard of playing prevailed, with no sign of any rehearsal time having been scrimped in favor of the concerted works.
The same 13th-century French tale was the source for Boccaccio's Decameron, Shakespeare's Cymbeline, and Carl Maria von Weber's opera Euryanthe, J.291. The ridiculous plot hinges on the noble Adolar wagering all his possessions with the villainous Lysiart that his intended bride, Euryanthe will be faithful to him. Given false evidence of her infidelity, Adolar condemns her to death. After a mish-mash involving a ring stolen from a tomb, a ghost, and concealed identities, a happy ending is pulled together. The Overture to Euryanthe comprises two rousing, martial sections, both richly chromatic, separated by eerie music from the Tomb Scene. Muted violins and a viola playing tremolo conjure up this striking effect.
Robert Schumann's skill as an orchestrator is often held in low regard. Conductors such as Mahler and Szell have taken it upon themselves to rescore the symphonies to varying degrees. Leonard Bernstein was among the first to trust the composer and present the symphonies as written, employing careful balancing of sections. Perick led a dynamic and transparent performance of the Symphony No. 1 in B-flat, Op. 38 ("Spring"). The ensemble was excellent, and each section played as one, instantly adjusting expressive dynamics or shifting rhythms. The horns and trombones were glorious. Perick's interpretation, in stark contrast to the dull and muddy sound that is too often heard in Schumann performances, was revelatory.