Evocative soloists illuminate BSO Concert

On Friday night the Berkshire Symphony presented its final concert of the year, Rising Stars, in front of a large Chapin Hall crowd, joined by the winners of the 2009 Student Soloists Competition, Alicia Choi ’09, Alex Taylor ’10 and Tiffany Yu ’12. Guest conductor Julian Kuerti, the young assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony, led the Berkshire in a long program of three concertos with the student winners, as well as George Perle’s Sinfonietta No. 1 and Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite.

It was still light outside when competition winner Yu came onstage to perform the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major. Written in 1786 and premiered by Mozart himself, the first movement is bright, playful and clearly orchestrated. Yu had a supple, unforced sound that was ideal for Mozart, and for the most part the orchestra matched her loose and lyrical phrasing. Though the orchestra was clearly holding back, some combination of poor acoustics in Chapin and Yu’s relaxed playing made it difficult to hear some fast runs in the piano part. Freed from having to match the volume of the orchestra, Yu’s cadenza was fiery and dramatic in all the right places, with impeccably clean trills and expressive pauses before chord resolutions. Overall, she appeared comfortable and confident on stage, and her performance was a ­­­­welcoming start to a long night of music.

Taylor performed next with Copland’s Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra. Written for jazz great Benny Goodman in 1947, the concerto is scored for a small string orchestra, piano and harp. It is in two movements: a melancholy, plaintive first and a more animated, jazzy second, linked by a cadenza in the clarinet. Taylor’s tone was sweet and crystal clear in the first half, and the orchestral textures evoked wide open spaces and quiet contemplation. The second half had more interplay between groups in the orchestra and the soloist, though the strings were not always crisply together. Goodman was concerned about his ability to play the numerous high notes at the end of the concerto, but Taylor didn’t seem to struggle, and the audience was thrilled with the confident way he ended the work.

The last concerto on the program was Erich Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D Major, with Choi as the soloist. Korngold, a major composer for movies in the 1930s and ’40s, used themes from some of his most famous and popular film scores to anchor this work, which was written in 1947. His hyper-Romantic, expressive language is bold and accessible, though sometimes it sounds cloying and antiquated to modern ears.
The opening movement was mysterious and enigmatic, with a very high, yearning violin line. Choi had a nearly flawless tone, impressive considering the extreme registers of the solo writing, which make it difficult to stay in tune and project cleanly. The high violin writing and Kuerti’s careful control of the ensemble kept the orchestra and solo violin in dynamic balance: Even when the violin moved to the lower strings where it projects less, Choi could be clearly heard. The second movement was similarly well balanced and lush, with rich orchestral textures enhanced by harp and celesta. The main theme, languorous and evocative of Debussy, returned multiple times throughout the movement, and Choi played the falling, stepwise melody with a haunting beauty.

The third movement was in great contrast to the first two, almost inexplicably so, evoking the American West, cowboys and dance halls. Though the orchestral writing was inventive and Choi’s violin playing was virtuosic and delightfully agile, I struggled to make sense of the movement in relation to the rest of the concerto. I felt highly conflicted as a listener: My Dionysian, right-brain half was wholly satisfied with Korngold’s evocative language and blooming textures. But my Apollonian, left-brain half could not make sense of this movement structurally, nor could it comprehend why it should follow the first two. Regardless of my personal conflict, the audience response was tremendously enthusiastic and they gave Choi a well-deserved standing ovation. Perhaps more so than the other soloists, she appeared to be a fully mature artist with no apparent technical limitations, capable of creating intense emotions and a robust, powerful sound.

The second half of the concert began with George Perle’s Sinfonietta No. 1, a piece scored for a small orchestra. In three movements, it is in a quasi-serialist language of Perle’s own invention. The first movement was propelled by a churning ostinato in the low strings and melancholy wind chords.

The second movement was bleak and brooding, with a wilting violin phrase, dusky string clusters and an expressive clarinet solo. The final movement was more rhythmically propulsive, haunting and darkly hued, but interrupted by an off-kilter march-like phrase and profane utterances by the trumpet.

The last work on the program, Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite, began after recognition of the graduating seniors in the orchestra. Written in 1910 for the Ballets Russes in Paris, Stravinsky’s innovative textures and rhythmically unpredictable writing were a sensation to the musical world and the general public. The opening section was quietly menacing and carefully controlled by Kuerti, whose hand gestures were precise and smoothly expressive. Lyrical solos by the woodwinds and the principal cellist were answered by a restrained violin melody in the second movement, and Kuerti drew a full, lush sound from the strings.

The fourth section, a lullaby, featured an exquisite, lingering bassoon solo and a slowly shifting, smoky background texture in the strings. On the final diminuendo before the last section of the piece, Kuerti got the orchestra to an aching quiet, perched on the edge of audibility. The broad, joyous finale was all the more effective because of this great contrast, with thick chords in the brass and woodwinds and an expressive melody in the strings. It was an appropriate way to end a concert that celebrated the musical talents of the student soloists, as well as those of Kuerti and the Berkshire Symphony.