As El Paso Symphony Orchestra kicked off its 79th season, violinist Jennifer Koh took Tchaikovsky's "Violin Concerto" and wrung a hot-blooded approach and pulsing vitality from its venerable status, as well as restoring a sense of freshness to the hands down, most popular warhorse.
She brought the Plaza Theatre audience to its feet in a default reaction, with clapping that wouldn't quit. So she obliged with another eloquent piece of classical literature as an encore - the full-bodied Bach Gigue from "Partita No. 2" for solo violin.
I got a chance to speak to her briefly when she and symphony director Sarah Ioannides spoke at a freebie pre-concert appearance at El Paso Museum of Art, in advance of the concerts Sept. 25 and 26.
Koh is tall, attractive and 30ish with carefully sculpted short, coal black hair. She's a "let's do it" violinist with no aggravating or disturbing mannerisms to mar the focus on her music.
(I recall one dynamite Pro-Musica violinist whose wilding gestures had me hanging on every note, fearful that he might throw himself out of his chair, undermining my attention to his music.)
Koh took on the well-known Tchaikovsky concerto, supported ethereally by the luscious tone of her loaned 1727 Stradivari with its distinct low register as immaculate as the notes on high. How impressive to hear each of the difficult arpeggios and double stops in the first movement as distinctly as a simple scale.
The beautiful singing quality of the Canzonetta was allowed to emerge after a riveting account from the woodwinds. Her rich cadenza fed into a high-octane finale, her bow seeming to approach lightning speed without losing a note.
Ioannides kept the orchestra pacing at white heat to bring it and Koh to a heart-stopping conclusion.
After intermission and the audience had a chance to catch its breath following Koh's bravura display, the orchestra continued its Russian repertoire with Serge Prokofiev's "Symphony No. 5."
Maestra Ioannides, in remarks to the audience before its performance, declared this symphony to be a favorite of hers.
It's not one I hear very often. Some patrons said they disliked the dissonance apparent in some of the four movements. I found them quite acceptable and even filled with plenty of melody.
Written in Russia during World War II, the opening "Andante" set the turmoil of the times. In the "Allegro," woodwinds stood out as they deftly passed the theme from one instrument to another. Brisk and peppery, it included hints of humor.
The third movement, "Adagio," has a tragic, emotional side that contained a lovely melody, well presented by the woods and strings. The finale, "Allegro giocoso," called for all hands on deck!
As the movement drew to a frenetic close, it became more agitated, even fierce. Musicians had to play at a pace almost impossible and it continued to bombard our ears until the final, and sudden, dramatic ending.
Ioannides had her hands full keeping the orchestra operating at full tilt. She expended the energy necessary to keep the fire going, but I sensed that players were tiring and some of the music sounded a bit tedious.
Violin, viola voices
Heard upon leaving Fox Recital Hall after a faculty program at University of Texas at El Paso: "That was the finest recital we've ever heard here."
That possibly overstated opinion was made by a fellow musician about UTEP music professor and symphony violinist and violist Stephanie Meyers, nee Schweigart, (as of last March.)
Each time I attend one of her UTEP faculty recitals, my admiration of her talent increases. This time she began with Bach's "Suite No. 4 in E-flat Major." Its five sections were revealed through her viola's heavenly precision, and ended with a short Eugene Ysaye "Ballade" voiced by her violin.
As always, UTEP composer in residence and assistant professor of Theory and Composition, Dominic Dousa, was her piano accompanist, this time in the "Sonata No. 1 in G Major" by Brahms with violin.
Even more impressive was their duo performance in Dousa's "Sonata for Viola and Piano." Her impeccable intonation and bowing technique allows long and unbroken phrasing.
Dousa and Meyers have teamed up for several years to premiere his original compositions. As always, her technique with both viola and violin is impeccable. His increasing ability to create listenable musical works, combined with her beautiful interpretation of his various works for violin and viola, always promises a delightful program.