Seattle Symphony Orchestra Performed Brahm's Concerto
By Melinda Bargreen
About halfway through Jennifer Koh’s performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto with the Seattle Symphony, I started worrying about the bow’s horsehair. After nearly every phrase in the first movement, she tore off several broken hairs from the bow. And given the tremendous intensity of her playing, would nothing but a bare stick be left by the end of the Allegro giocoso finale?
Luckily, the bow held up, and Koh’s triumphant performance of the Brahms was one to remember. This was her first collaboration with the Seattle Symphony and maestro Ludovic Morlot – which seems odd, given Koh’s prominence in the violin world. (She has been famous ever since the 1994-95 season, when she won the prestigious Tchaikovsky International Competition, the Concert Artists Guild Competition, and an Avery Fisher Career Grant.)
Better late than never! Koh strode onto the Benaroya Hall stage in a red strapless gown and launched into the music with her eyes closed, her whole body in motion, and her shaggy cap of hair flying as she poured her energy into every phrase.
Born to Korean parents in Chicago, and trained at the Curtis Institute (after making her Chicago Symphony debut at age 11), Koh is an exciting violinist to hear and to watch, but she doesn’t play to the audience. Most of the time she appears to be in a personal reverie with the music, though she turns to the conductor at key points in the score – transitions, tempo changes, entrances. Apart from those moments, she could be in a world of her own. And it’s quite a world, one of technical near-perfection produced by her incredibly strong, steady tone and the finesse of her phrasing.
Morlot was a good partner in the Brahms, quieting the orchestra to allow some breathtaking pianissimo moments in the solo part to shine, and keeping up with alacrity whenever Koh hit the accelerator pedal.
The programming was interesting, to say the least, beginning with two highly pictorial works from different centuries. The opener brought in the Seattle Symphony Chorale (prepared by Joseph Crnko, who is getting stellar results out of this chorus) for excerpts from Schubert’s “Rosamunde,” nicely characterized with lots of expressive details. The four-part male chorus was particularly impressive.
The Schubert was followed by Janacek’s colorful and intermittently inspired “Taras Bulba,” a picturesque and rhythmic score featuring odd and beautiful combinations of instruments, punctuated by plenty of brass. The score has an almost cinematic sound; it describes episodes from a Gogol novel about a brave but doomed Cossack. It’s not a great piece, but Morlot made a strong case for it, drawing a fine performance from the orchestra and some brilliant solo work from many principals (most notably oboist Ben Hausmann).
And now, Morlot is off the Benaroya Hall podium again until June. It has been, in many ways, a curious first season: a lovefest of an opening-night gala and a brief run of concerts, followed by long absences. Will this schedule allow Morlot the opportunity to shape the Seattle Symphony as he has said he wishes to? Symphony fans are staying tuned – so to speak.