In the recent (February) issue of BBC Music Magazine, Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35, ranks among the ten most difficult classical pieces of music introduced in its time – one refused by its initial dedicatee, Leopold Auer, who, according to the magazine, called the piece "unviolinistic."
Mary Catherine Cox must not have received the memo.
Cox, a junior at East Carolina University, handled all the intricacies, grace and intensity of this piece with great skill and poise as part of a program by the East Carolina University Symphony Orchestra. Playing with vibrant energy and finesse, Cox, winner of the ECU Concerto Competition Ron and Patty Allison Prize, provided a memorable evening of music for an appreciative audience in Wright Auditorium.
She negotiated the frequent double-stopped passages and devilishly fast fingering with ease, and she handled the delicate higher notes with precision and without losing any of the singing tone for which this concerto is so famous. Worth particular mention was her playing of the quite long cadenza in the opening allegro moderato movement. This is a gigantic movement, one that easily could stand by itself as a concert piece without any other sections (think the opening movement to Tchaikovsky's equally famous piano concerto). But the composer also provided two other movements that showcase a soloist's skills with equal measure, the lovely canzonetta: andante and the closing allegro vivacissimo. The violin melody line in the second movement is simple and beautiful, and Cox provided a simply beautiful reading, while the third movement is much more emphatic, muscular even, and Cox blazed her way through to the rousing conclusion that featured quite the incandescent dialog between soloist and orchestra.
The ECU orchestra was under the direction of Leon Gregorian, head of the graduate orchestral conducting program at Michigan State University's College of Music and director of orchestras at the college, and supported Cox generally quite well, especially with the cushion provided by the strings and some nice playing by the winds. Gregorian, whose son Ara Gregorian teaches Cox at ECU and who heads the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival, kept a brisk tempo throughout, never permitting a slower pace as a way to accommodate a mere college musician. Cox proved to be no mere college musician.
One can complain about the over-the-topness of Tchaikovsky's piano concerto (at least the bombastic opening movement), but the equally-warhorse violin concerto is elegantly grand in the best sense; it demands a soloist with both technical skills and passion, and Cox met those demands well.
(Ms. Cox also has won concerto competitions in Raleigh and Durham and is to play with the Raleigh Symphony in late February and with the Durham Symphony in early April. Hers is a talent worth noting.)
ECU Symphony conductor Jorge Richter led the orchestra in closing the program with Robert Schumann's Symphony No. 4 in D-minor, Op. 120. Although a contemporary of Mendelssohn, Schumann's final symphony, dedicated to his wife Clara, seemed to look back more toward the classicism of Beethoven than ahead to the romanticism that was dominating the latter half of the 19th century. As opposed to the music Mendelssohn was composing, for example, this piece seems almost stodgy by comparison, although there are some nice melodies throughout. Again, the strings and winds provided the best musical moments. The cello-viola-second violin-first violin progression in the opening ziemlich langsam movement was nicely done, and the cello-oboe duet to open the second romanze movement was lovely, as was the brief first violin solo that followed. Richter paced the third scherzo movement perhaps a bit more slowly than one might have heard elsewhere, but this let the music breathe. The fourth langsam movement provides an energetic conclusion to an otherwise relatively low-key composition.
The concert opened with a good reading of Antonín Dvořák's Slavonic Dance No. 10 in E-minor, Op. 72/2, conducted by Nyamsaikhan Odsuren, who is completing his master's degree in orchestral conducting. He has a graceful conducting style, neither too expansive nor too reserved. The piece is one of the more familiar short works by Dvořák and was nicely done.
The program was not without its shortcomings, however, most notably in the lower brass players, who seemed to follow too closely the frequent musical reminder (or admonition) to stay on the high side of the pitch. In the Dvořák dance, and at several points during the Schumann symphony, some of the brass was on the sharp side of the pitch, especially noticeable at the conclusion of the symphony.