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There are young artists who impress an audience with their developing talent, and then there are players like the 16-year-old violinist Zeyu Victor Li, who already at a very young age seem to have reached the summit of their craft. Li, a native of Huainan City of Anhui Province, China, was the featured artist in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35, with the Brevard Philharmonic. Also on the program was Rossini’s Overture to La Cenerentola and the Symphony No. 3 by Robert Ward. Of course, the big draw was the phenomenal “young prodigy,” but the orchestra gave us many more reasons for being there. By programming relatively unknown contemporary works (at least to this audience), Artistic Director and Conductor Donald Portnoy is gently nudging concert goers to diversify their experience and appreciation of music beyond the Romantic period.
The orchestra is to be commended for its performance of each piece on this program. The concert opener was the Rossini overture, an appealing work which was originally written for La Gazzetta, one of Rossini’s unsuccessful operas. This performance bubbled with energy and an infectious sense of fun. At the work’s core is the element of surprise, where the composer lays out this melody, then that; this mood, then that; this solo, that instrumental dialogue. Capping the merriment is a series of crescendos which were beautifully controlled under Portnoy’s direction.
Just before intermission was the Ward Symphony No. 3. There is a personal connection between Portnoy and Ward; Portnoy was in Ward’s first theory class at the Julliard School. Though born in 1917 in Cleveland, Ward’s ties to North Carolina are deep: he served as the Chancellor of the North Carolina School of the Arts from 1967-1975, where he also served on its faculty. Later he became a visiting professor at Duke University in 1978 and was named the Mary Duke Biddle Professor of Music from 1979-87.
In a note by Ward to the audience and read by Portnoy, Ward, who is now 96 years old, said that this work is “of pivotal significance in my career.” Exactly how this was so was not shared, but clearly it is a seminal piece in the mind of its composer. While in it one can hear passing influences of Copland, with whom he studied at Tanglewood’s Berkshire Music Center, and Howard Hansen, one of his mentors at Eastman, the piece bears the unique imprint of Ward. Written in 1950 for chamber ensemble and revised to chamber orchestra scoring, the expanded version premiered in 1951.
The symphony is in only three movements. The first movement contains a brief introductory Adagio, music initiated by stabbing chordal dissonances, then an atonal oboe solo. Other woodwind solos well up from the depths here and throughout the entire symphony, showcasing the fine musicianship of the principal players (flutist Candace Norton, oboist Emily Scheider, clarinetist Matthew Hanna, and bassoonist Jennifer Anderson). The Allegro section featured a high degree of rhythmic vitality contrasted with lyric themes and widely spaced scoring reminiscent of Copland. A piano (played by Patti Black) adds its percussive voice to the contrapuntal web. The second, soul-filled movement was a concert highlight with the piano maintaining a prominent role with its expansive melody with recurring trills. Ward said the idea for this grew out of “wonderful moments from piano solos and concerti,” and as in these genres the piano repeatedly calls attention to itself. The final Allegro is announced by the horns and unfolded as a high-spirited dance-like rondo. The orchestra deserved much more recognition for their fine execution of this piece than was registered by the tepid applause from the audience.
The concert concluded after intermission with the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. Mr. Li seemed totally at ease and in his element as he performed this giant in the repertoire flawlessly. What was so uncanny was his total technical control of his instrument, with no extraneous or flamboyant movements whatsoever. This is an artist who already is so sure of himself that he allowed the music to speak through him, without personal interjections of temperament or ego. His playing was so finely nuanced and moving that I found myself repeatedly blinking back tears of wonder. High notes (and there were plenty) — perfectly in tune. Passagework and multiple stops — no problem, and not overplayed. Soaring melodies — got them; emotional range, dramatic pacing, and depth of feeling — exceptional by any standard. This is a young man to watch, and to give abundant thanks for. Thanks certainly go to the concert’s sponsors, Dr. and Mrs. James Robertson.