The orchestra in Assad 'Violin Concerto'

Posted: September 30, 2006

The theater world has an axiom that any given play grows longer in larger performing spaces. Clarice Assad's new Violin Concerto strangely went in the opposite direction: Though its 22-minute duration feels expansive on compact disc at home, the concerto seemed much shorter Thursday at the Kimmel Center with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. Maybe that's because you wanted more of it.

This first major concert work by the 28-year-old jazz-steeped Assad is high on lyricism and charm, not so high on the kind of thematic development that could explore more aspects of her melodic inspiration. Inspired by the Samuel Barber Violin Concerto, Assad's isn't about thematic arguments between soloist and orchestra; it creates a series of abstract, thematically integrated symphonic songs - likely to be dismissed by the cutting edge and embraced by almost everybody else.

The wind writing delivers welcome whiffs of Spanish/Moorish influences. The third movement puts a large variety of ideas into the same musical room, alternately making sense of their coexistence and delighting in their lack of it. True to form, Salerno-Sonnenberg was an emotional live wire, which meant everything to the Assad concerto (a great showcase for her temperament) and gave a particular conceptual cast to Bach's Violin Concerto No. 2. Her conversational phrasing in Bach needs more thought, detail and stylistic consistency - even if she gives more than what most non-Bach specialists do these days.

Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 was a holdover from last week; music director Christoph Eschenbach's already powerful interpretation became more so. Incidental solos were in sharper focus. So was the symphony's long-term logic, which progressed with Bach-like inevitability but with many mysterious back alleys. You could almost hear the composer confronting ever-darker turns with terror-stricken deep breaths, as suggested by Eschenbach's use of luftpausen.

Those tempo hesitations reappeared with different effect in the intentionally loutish dance rhythms of the second movement, creating fun/pathetic hiccups and comic/tragic moments of indecision. The Philadelphia sound has rarely been better used, with French horns growling ominously, violin pianissimos scaled back to an intense shimmer, and massed sonorities giving stature and nobility to the music's dissonant anguish.

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at 215-854-4907 or dstearns@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ davidpatrickstearns.

The Philadelphia Orchestra will repeat this program at 8 p.m. today and Tuesday at the Kimmel Center. Tickets: $10-$113. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.philorch.org.

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