Highly polished violin soloist and rocky Brahms First fill the program
By Peter Alexander
Last night Bahman Saless and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra opened “Jinx,” their 13th season, with a program that challenged the orchestra and the soloist, violinist Yabing Tan.
The concert in the Boulder Adventist Church on Mapleton opened with an appearance by Boulder Chamber of Commerce CEO John Tayer as guest conductor. The orchestra played Johan Strauss, Jr.’s spirited Tritsch Tratsch Polka with appropriate vigor, while Tayer provided choreography on the podium—posing on one foot, making pantomime gestures and leading the audience in clapping. There was no sign of a jinx in this cheerful start to the season.
The rest of the concert’s first half was given over to Tan’s performance of two staples of the violin repertoire, Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso by Saint-Saëns and Henryk Wieniawski’s Second Concerto. The order—Strauss, Saint-Saëns, Wieniawski—was like going from desert to main course, but all the dishes were well prepared.
Tan earned her appearance with the BCO as winner of the Classic Alive Artist Competition. She has a silky sound that was well displayed throughout. She has said of the Saint-Saëns “if you practice for years and hours, then it’s not so hard.” Clearly she has put in the practice, because the music was completely under control. If anything, it seemed too easy, so comfortable that the music’s innate drama was understated.
The same was true to some extent of her polished performance of the Wieniawski Concerto. She flashed through all the technical passages easily, while floating beautifully through the lyrical passages. The only thing missing was a fiery spark of excitement.
The Romance emerged as a lovely interlude between the outer movements, as Tan carried Wieniawski’s lyrical lines with great tenderness. She was aided by outstanding playing from the solo clarinet. The performance caught fire in the à la Zingara (gypsy style) finale, providing a bit of flash and dash for the ending. Saless and the BCO provided sympathetic support throughout.
Brahms’s First Symphony is a serious and complex work, Brahms’s studied answer to expectations that he would follow Beethoven as the great German symphonist. This large-scale symphony was a severe test for the small forces of the BCO, pushing them to and sometimes beyond their limit. All the notes were in place, the dynamic contours generally clear, but Brahms needs more than that.
To begin with, the orchestra failed to retune before beginning the symphony. The pitch never really settled comfortably until the players finally tuned again before the last movement. The lack of precise pitch agreement created a muddied and raw sound, especially when the full ensemble was playing. This compounded the natural problems that result when a small orchestra undertakes a piece that requires weight and strength.
Problems were evident in the very first notes of the introduction, when the timpani, positioned in a corner of the resonant church sanctuary, overwhelmed the rest of the orchestra. In the rest of the introduction one heard mostly a wall of wind sound, with moving lines within the small-ish string section rendered almost inaudible.
Once the Allegro portion of the movement got underway, the more lightly scored passages were much more satisfactory. Tutti climaxes, however, always tended to sound heavy and unclear. Full chords from the winds and rhythmic impulses from the brass often covered the strings. Since the strings carry much of the musical argument, a lot of what was happening in the score was not available to the listeners.
Another problem, at least in the space of the Adventist Church, is that the limited range of dynamics and weight available to a smaller orchestra did not allow for powerful contours over longer stretches of music. In other words, local contours were well shaped, but across longer spans everything fell within the same range. Extremes were lost, at both the delicate and weighty ends of the spectrum.
With intonation improved, the beginning of the finale was the best part of the symphony. The buildup to the big theme, which Saless had pointed out before the performance, was effective, and the ending achieved a satisfying level of excitement and impact.
There were outstanding performances by the individual players in the orchestra—the principal clarinet, flute and oboe were notable. Concertmaster Annamaria Karacson’s solos were beautifully played. The horn had some lovely moments, although always at the risk of overwhelming the string sound.
In short, the individual players fully met the challenges of Brahms’s First. Alas, the BCO collectively did not. The strengths and weaknesses of the performance should stand as a cautionary note for chamber orchestras venturing into large-orchestra territory.