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The Divine Sarah

New York
Venetian Theater
07/29/2001 -  
Igor Stravinsky: Concerto for String Orchestra
Johannes Brahms: Violin Concerto
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony # 7

Sarah Chang (violin)
Orchestra of St. Luke's
Peter Oundjian (conductor)

There is a lot more to do on the Caramoor estate than hear wonderful music. There is a museum to peruse, expansive gardens to explore and lusciously shady groves in which to wander. After a lovely picnic lunch, my companion and I embarked on a leisurely Sunday stroll towards the butterfly bushes and their lively and colorful visitors when we encountered beauty of a quite different kind. As we passed the Venetian Theater we could hear glorious sounds. Peeking over the iron fence near the Horsehead Gate, which looks like the opening and closing set of an elaborate Don Carlo, we saw, alone on the stage and in the auditorium as a whole, a violinist dressed in sports clothes, playing though the Joachim cadenza of the Brahms concerto. What she was doing was not practicing (the time for that had long since past), but rather listening, making absolutely sure that her huge tone was properly resonating in the warm but idiosyncratic acoustics of Caramoor’s combination of proscenium and Moorish-design tent. The naked sonorities were thrilling and seemed to satisfy this obviously dedicated musician, who could have just as easily taken the money and ran without so much attention to detail. The violinist was Sarah Chang.

Technically she is an absolute phenomenon: gigantic tone, amazing dexterity, harmonics to die for, portamento slides not experienced since the 1940’s. Musically she has shown me in my two opportunities to hear her a strong will to project her own conception of a piece onto the audience and the musicians surrounding her. When I heard her Dvorak with the LSO this spring, I was immediately struck by her total involvement in the music, manifest by an ingenuous ability to waltz about the stage whilst playing the third movement tune which begs for, but never actually receives, this type of joy and abandon. In the more mighty Brahms, dynamics seemed to be her particular discovery and she proceeded to deliver a master class in the art of contrast, her interpretive skills running the gamut from the wholesomely full and loud to the even more attention grabbing silken sotto voce. In the first movement, she traversed the mysteriously romantic landscape with the cockiness of a Lewis or Clark, imbuing the music with many subtle changes of tempi and timbre and essentially leading the orchestra with her insistence of phrasing and her strong body language (Kyung-Wha Chung does this with superb results as well). If I have a quarrel with this movement’s interpretation, it is that I would have wished for a little less seam between notes, a little more smoothness of phrasing transition, but this will come, I have no doubt, with time (I have to constantly stop and remind myself that Ms. Chang is only 19 years old).

The seamless flow is certainly there, as it made its gorgeous appearance in the second movement. Rarely have I experienced such an organic melodic line sustained for so long an unbroken period, each rising of tone a twitter of aural pleasure. Ms. Chang has also solved the age-old Brahms concerto problem: what to do during the very long oboe introduction to this beautiful movement. She turned her ear towards the orchestra and actually listened to her colleagues (what a radical idea!) before joining in with her unique conception. In the third movement, she attacked her fiddle like a wild animal, turning the penultimate beat of the main melodic line from a caesura to a moment of chilling expectation. Her rapid fingering was not only impressively accurate but also delicately spidery as she quite correctly brought the movement into sharp focus as a giant decrescendo, putting a deliciously quiet exclamation point on the proceedings which only increased the pent-up roar of the extremely appreciative audience. I have only heard one other violinist pull this trick off successfully, when Midori, that over-the-hill dowager of 28, dazzled a New York crowd with a gentle and exquisite final phrase in the otherwise Gargantuan Beethoven concerto. Like her elder colleague, Sarah Chang is more than just a fabulously talented violinist. She also has something to say, and, if yesterday’s audience is any barometer, people are listening.

Ms. Chang’s dynamic (in both senses of the word) interpretation was particularly apt for a concert with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. They are an expanded chamber orchestra dedicated to a concept which they call “rightsizing” (this was their appellation for the 2000-2001 season), that is, trying to recreate the size of the orchestra contemporary with the premiere of the individual work. They are by no stretch of the ear a period instrument group, but their smallish sound moves in that direction. As a result their Brahms is muscular and masculine, fitting for the repertoire of the composer whose lifetime saw the transition from the small forces of the second quarter of the 19th century (Mendelssohn’s Gewandhaus had a total of 35 players) to the huge orchestras of Bruckner and Mahler (in fact, Brahms tenure as music director of the Vienna Philharmonic was a key era in this transition, even though he was summarily dismissed over repertoire choices).

The Stravinsky piece which opened the program is exactly the same age as I am, only it has not held up half so well. What might have been seen as clever at the time now only appears dated, but even with this as a caveat, the work deserved a better hearing than this flabby performance. There should at least be crispness in this neoclassicism and it was woefully absent this day. There is little argument left about orchestral size in Beethoven’s lifetime and this smallish band presented a rugged and raw-boned version of the primordial 7th. Here the St. Luke’s virile style was thrilling, the hard sticks of the timpani a nod to early performance practice. However, the rough and ready atmosphere became almost lawless as many wandered from the straight and narrow of proper intonation, the resulting presentation probably very close to an accurate recreation of the sound of the early 18th century, warts and all. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but I was pleased to hear a version that was outside of the ordinary tried, true and tame. Beethoven’s power came from his willingness to unleash the orchestra from the courtly constraints of convention; he was perfectly willing to created cacophony in the process, so long as the emotions emerged as the centerpiece of his new aesthetic. This type of performance challenged its listeners and this was a good thing. After all, we have FM radio available if all we want is the same old same old.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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