Listening to musicians play works they genuinely love imparts something special to a concert.
There was a freshness, enthusiasm and sense of discovery to performances of concertos Saturday by members of the New World Symphony that may not always be apparent in the playing of a touring pianist pounding his way through his 75th rendition of the Grieg concerto.
The orchestra’s “Concerto Showcase” at New World Center in Miami Beach presented performances by four members of the orchestra who had prevailed in a competition among their peers, playing works that they had selected. The orchestra, under guest conductor Alasdair Neale, gave fine support to the soloists.
The concert opened with flutist Masha Popova in the Concerto in C for Flute and Strings by André Jolivet, a 20th-century French composer who liked instruments with ancient origins, such as the flute. In this moody, atmospheric work, he called on the soloist to portray a range of emotions and sensibilities, and Popova delivered. She played the long opening melody with a wistful melancholy and seamless phrasing. In the more aggressive passages that followed, she delivered a forcefulness not often associated with this instrument, playing piercing tones almost in a spirit of rebellion. Her skill at the instrument was apparent throughout, and in difficult rapid passages, the fast notes came with the effortless grace of a brook running downhill.
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Violinist Julia Noone walked out on stage and gave a performance that would have done credit to many of the well-known violinists who have performed in that hall. She chose the Violin Concerto No. 2 by the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski, whose professional life straddled the end of the Romantic period and beginning of 20th century modernism.
Noone entered fully into the work’s world of mystery, rhapsodic joy and introspection. She has a wonderful tone, with a rich vibrato that gave heat to the soaring passages with which the work abounds, displaying a technique that allowed her to make effortless leaps up to the highest notes without a break in the melody. Yet she also imbued less showy passages, such as the long inward-looking melodies, with expressiveness and meaning.
And Noone could marshal tremendous power from her small stringed instrument. Early in the work, there’s a huge crescendo in chords, in which the violinist has to play three notes at once, and the soloist delivered it with bite, resonance and power, without a trace of strangled crunching served up by other violinists. The long cadenza by Szymanowski’s friend, the concert violinist Paul Kochanski, may not have been a musical highlight, but it was a showy, difficult few minutes for the violinist, and Noone handled its runs, octaves and everything else with skill and style.
Next came cellist Julia Yang in Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in C Major. Her opening was weighted and dignified, with the grace of a court dance. Yet she brought to the work the sort of clean, lithe playing that’s essential to bringing off this music, bringing out the pathos of minor-key passages without a lull in the flow of the music.
She attacked the last movement with gusto. This movement is something of a virtuoso showpiece on its own, with extremely rapid passages in the instrument’s upper register that cross multiple strings, requiring lots of agile bowing and fingering. Many cellists could fight their way through these passages, making them sound like just a particularly difficult etude. But Yang made music of them, never allowing the fast notes to become a blur and creating the sense of joyful virtuosity that this movement was intended to evoke.
Every symphony orchestra needs an in-house pianist for those works that call for a keyboard instrument to be a part of the ensemble. But on Saturday, pianist Yu “Dean” Zhang got his chance to solo, and he delivered a bravura performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Heard much less frequently than the composer’s later concertos, this is a work Rachmaninoff composed while still at the Moscow Conservatory and revised later, with smoky, Romantic passages that bear the unmistakable stamp of the composer.
Zhang performed in the grand manner, his hands sweeping across the keyboard, giving a fearless performance of this difficult music. He brought particular tension and drama to the cadenza. He could be a powerful keyboard player when the musical drama called for it. But what was most striking in his playing was his smooth, fluid touch at the keyboard, as he played intricate, complex passages that accompanied the melodies in the orchestra, bringing maximum expressiveness to these passages and integrating his playing into that of the ensemble.
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