February 7, 2009

Review: Violinist, Modesto symphony score with 'Butterfly Lovers'

The Modesto Symphony celebrated Valentine’s Day this weekend with the attractive “Butterfly Lovers” Violin Concerto performed impeccably by the up-and-coming young artist Jessica Lee.

Depicting an ancient Chinese “Romeo and Juliet”-style tale, the Butterfly Lovers concerto is the only piece of classical music I have ever seen that lists two composers, in this case Gang Chen and Zhanhao He. Much of it, to my ear, sounded like a film score that would suit an IMAX production about the famous sights of Chinese culture.

And, I would say, the performance possessed all of the professional polish and sound of an already recorded piece of music. Jessica Lee played with a bright but expressive tone that conveyed a personal engagement with this piece that sold it to the audience with utter conviction. She provided the lyrical passages with a spacious flexibility that contrasted effectively with the crisp, clean attacks of the fast folk-like segments. All the technical elements in Ms. Lee’s playing were totally mastered with an assurance that explains her many successes in prestigious competitions. The orchestra, likewise, played its supportive role effectively, by turns powerful and delicate as the music demanded, maintaining ideal balance with the soloist throughout.

In fact, the orchestra played exceptionally well all evening. There was hardly a moment when I was distracted by the little ensemble and tuning issues that sometimes arise due to the short rehearsal schedule that the orchestra must operate on. They gave the subtle, subdued concert opener, Faure’s “Pelléas et Mélisande Suite,” a performance that felt like a soothing, warm, sonic bath, giving us all a very welcome moment of relief from yet another week of brutal economic news. The strings in particular were responsive to David Lockington’s musically sensitive reading of this score. Individual soloists also contributed substantially to the success of the performance, notably principal oboe Denis Harper in “Fileuse” and principal flute Elaine Moon who was kept very busy turning out elegant renditions of difficult solos through all the repertoire on the program.

Review continues below video.

The evening’s second half consisted of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8 in G major, a great and accessible work, though not quite as famous as the Symphony No. 9 (from the “New World”). The Eighth Symphony sounds at times like a pastiche of the composer’s own Slavonic Dances but offers substance and charm in equal measure. The cello section played the opening theme of the first movement with longing and melancholy. The full orchestra answered with a buoyant vigor brought to life through precise ensemble playing, clear and energetic attacks and releases, and well-tuned and balanced tutti passages. The orchestra also effectively colored the frequent infusions of minor mode that shadow the optimism which strives to dominate this piece. The second movement was notable for its careful pacing of phrase, as well as a well-executed solo from Daniel Flanagan, the concertmaster. Also notable was the exceptional dynamic range and tonal blend in the passages played together by clarinets Karen Wells (Eds note: not Ginger Kroft Barnetson, as initially reported) and Erin Finklestein. In the third movement, the orchestra captured both the wistfulness and cheerfulness of old-world dance tunes. Enhanced by a powerful brass section in the coda, the finale swept everyone along to a stirring conclusion to one of the finest performances to date that I have observed from the Modesto Symphony. Kudos are due both to the musicians and also to music director David Lockington who knows how to elicit the best playing from his ensemble.

Thomas is a professor of music at California State University, Stanislaus, in Turlock.

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