Review: Wilkins and CSO offer brilliant rendition of Sibelius’ Second Symphony
After the Charleston Symphony Orchestra played the overture to Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” (with panache and precision), guest conductor Christopher Wilkins offered a few comments about the rest of the program as stagehands adjusted the chairs.
He briefly described Henryk Wieniawski’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in D minor, calling it one of those great pieces that never quite became fully established on the A List of the violin repertoire, but perhaps should be included because of its Romantic flair and technical bling. A then he praised the soloist.
“You will always remember the night you heard Karen Gomyo play her 1703 Stradivarius,” he said.
She really was fabulous — more on that in a minute — but what I will always remember is not the Wieniawski but a very special performance of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 in D major.
So let me begin by describing the second half of Friday’s concert at the Sottile Theatre, where Wilkins, a candidate for the music director post, demonstrated an endearing humility and impressive command of the music.
I’m not sure I’ve heard the orchestra sound better. It would seem this is because of a mutual respect shared by conductor and players, as well as a collective determination to turn Sibelius’ myriad melodies and fragmented phrases into a cohesive whole that rang forth with both sensitivity and gusto.
Wilkins trusted the orchestra and the orchestra trusted Wilkins. So he didn’t have to over-exert himself. He didn’t stand apart from the players and direct them. It was more organic than that, more collaborative. There was a lot of give and take. They were one.
The result was an interpretation that was relaxed yet intense. The tempos were gracious, the many interweaving lines clearly expressed.
This is a difficult symphony to pull off well. All those musical fragments and thematic variations can easily make the piece sound, well, fragmented. So it’s the conductor’s particular challenge to tie it all together. The pizzicato lines in the low strings must lead logically to the big brass chords; the violins must know how to make a gentle hand-off of the relay baton to the woodwinds, and so on.
And when themes return later, often mutated or orchestrated differently, the conductor must convey a certain inevitability.
Wilkins, conducting from memory, handled it all magically. And the orchestra responded with a full measure of heart and soul.
Sibelius sometimes is thought of as a Romantic reactionary. He composed well into the 20th century, even as Schoenberg and Debussy were breaking down or reconfiguring tonality.
Sibelius was as much an admirer of Tchaikovsky as he was of Wagner, and one hears a little of both in the Finnish master’s music. Those short phrases are Sibelius’ way of experimenting with form (like Wagner’s leitmotifs and melodic variants), while that lushness and nature-inspired Romanticism (not to mention those famous longer themes in the fourth movement of the Second Symphony) exude the sentiment and grandeur of Tchaikovsky.
Sibelius also incorporated folk music, like some of his contemporaries (Mahler, Bartok). So it’s probably unfair to think of him as a throwback to a bygone era. He was, in the end, a product of his time and place.
At any rate, the Charleston Symphony, with its unhampered, gracious and detailed performance, made it clear that this Second Symphony is a true masterpiece.
Now, about that Gomyo... To use a current urban expression, she killed it.
The Wieniawski concerto is a showstopper by design. It has plenty of flash but no catchy tunes until the final movement, and it lacks a certain innate identity or self-contained character like the great concerti of, say, Brahms or Mendelssohn. That’s probably why it remains on the B List. Still, it is great fun.
The composer was first and foremost a virtuoso violinist, and he wrote music that showed off his technical prowess. This piece is fireworks most of the way through, with glissandi, double stops, tricky harmonics and notes so high there is no fingerboard left against which a digit can press.
Gomyo exhibited impeccable technique and musical smarts that made this interpretation a particularly thrilling joy ride. And when the slow second movement arrived, she proved she could play a long, ringing phrase with refined ardor and sweep.
The third movement, with its gypsy fire, was a stunning finale that turned Gomyo’s fingers into a blur. Yet every note was clear and crisp. And here’s the kicker: I was told that this series of three concerts was the first time she’s performed this concerto.
Frankly, it was her encore, a solo etude by Astor Piazzolla, with its tango flavor and articulated phrases, that impressed me more. Gomyo gave it a tasteful lilt and just the right swagger. It was a real treat to hear it, and to hear her.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook/aparkerwriter.