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Hits and Misses

Jones Hall
04/14/2011 -  and April 16, 17, 2011
Valentin Silvestrov: Elegie for String Orchestra
Jean Sibelius: Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 47
Felix Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 56 "Scottish"

Leila Josefowicz
Houston Symphony, Kirill Karabits (conductor)

L. Josefowicz (© Tom Bangbala)

Last season's HSO concerts with Kirill Karabits on the podium were stunning. As a last minute replacement for Claus Peter For, he brought precision and spunk to two French warhorses, and I was excited for his return to Jones Hall. This season, Karabits wasn't as immediately engaging, and certainly didn't have his orchestra and soloist playing as impeccably as they did last year, but the program continued to reveal a fiery nature in the young Ukrainian, especially in an emphatic, stormy reading of the Mendelssohn symphony that closed the evening.

Valentin Silvestrov's Elegie, composed in memoriam for Kirill's composer father, Ivan Karabits, presents a great deal of heft in its short duration. The piece is prismatic, dark-hued and rich, presenting Sibelius-like textures of melodic fragments beginning on upbeats and left hanging in midair that only gradually coalesce into a short-lived stroke of lyricism. Karabits coaxed lush yet flexible sounds from the strings, and they responded with a mosaic of finely-etched slivers, revolving around the stage in their own moods and tempos but organically grown out of the breath-like guiding rhythm of the piece. It would be wonderful to hear more of this composer's intriguing and touching music on this stage.

Leila Josefowicz entered the stage in an icy blue dress, and expectations ran high for her Sibelius concerto. She is a powerful artist, with formidable technique, and memorably turned in a stunning John Adams concerto on this very stage a few seasons back. From her initial entry, however, it was clear Josefowicz was simply off her game tonight. Throughout the first two movements there were miniscule but distracting technical problems. Intonation wasn't true, nor were her placements of the many important harmonics that often end phrases. She is a violinist that can clearly exceed the technical demands of this work, and much of the trouble in her playing must simply be credited to an off night. We all have them.

Fortunately, the finale offered a spot of redemption. At a zippy tempo, Josefowicz finally seemed ready to dig in to the music, crouching, turning and bobbing as she became more enraptured in the work and correspondingly more secure in her technique. In her commitment to the poco a poco più energico markings towards the end of the finale, she brought a breathtaking push to the coda, where her swooping octave figures finally revealed the purity of her tone and the precision of her technique. If only the finale could have been the first movement in this performance!

Backstage during intermission, Karabits must have made the decision to do away with any mitigating modifiers in the tempo markings of Mendelssohn's Scottish symphony, which comprised the second half. The main portion of the first movement went from simply Allegro un poco agitato to a stormy Allegro agitato and the scherzo became Vivace, with little to none of the non troppo of the marking. In many cases, this brought forth virility and forcefulness in the performances, and the orchestra held up its end of the bargain, with sharply articulated string rhythms and bold, present horn sounds that emphasized the specter of Macbeth instead of Mendelssohn's remembrance of the sun-saturated ruined chapel at the Holyrood abbey, where the composer was inspired for the work.

In some instances, particularly the scherzo, the tempo was a shade to quick to bring precision to the contrapuntal workings of the score. There is a limit to how fast this can go before it sounds merely hectic, and Karabits stepped slightly across that line. The finale, however, was spot on in tempo, and the valiant coda, again bringing splendid playing from the horns bolstered by dark-hued rotary trumpets, brought the evening to a triumphant close.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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