The concert opened with Grieg’s “Elegiac Melodies,” string orchestra transcriptions made from two of his songs for voice and piano: “Hjertesår” (or “Heart Wounds,” a slight change from the song’s original title, “Den sårede,” simply “The Wounded”) and “Våren” (“Spring”).
Varga used reduced forces of 26 string players on these almost ephemerally melodic works, which the orchestra played with great delicacy. Varga gave careful attention to details of phrasing and balance. In the first song, a melodic line given to the cello section especially hangs in the ear’s memory.
Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang, in her first performance with the ASO, was originally scheduled to play the Violin Concerto of Erich Korngold, but due to a “temporary medical condition,” the nature of which was not disclosed, the orchestra announced Monday that the 27-year-old soloist would instead perform Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 (a.k.a. “Turkish”).
Interestingly, that Mozart work has been performed by the ASO three times in subscription concerts within two years: by concertmaster David Coucheron in February 2011, with Robert Spano conducting; in November by Karen Gomyo with Matthias Pintscher at the helm; and now this week’s performances. While I was not present at the Coucheron-Spano rendering, the contrast between the Gomyo-Pintscher performance and that of Frang-Varga was like night and day. It was a demonstration of what an enormous difference both soloist and conductor can make upon the same music played by the same orchestra.
While Frang’s tone was not large in this concert, it was exceptionally pure and angelic. Her performance was completely at ease, her phrasing open, lucid and natural, a breath of fresh air. The cadenzas were familiar ones but were played in a delightfully personal manner.
Had the violinist’s mysterious “temporary medical condition” not been made public, no one would have known about it based on her performance. Now that we’ve heard her play Mozart, she should be invited to perform again with the ASO — perhaps not the ill-fated Korngold, but maybe the violin concerto by Carl Nielsen, which she recorded for EMI on a CD released last year. It’s a piece that Music Director Spano might want to sink his teeth into himself as conductor.
Varga’s attention to detail of phrasing heard in the Grieg boded well for the Mozart. He used the same number of strings as in the Grieg, plus of course the pairs of oboes and horns called for in the score. In the concluding Rondo, in the brief pause before the final return of the A theme, the eye-to-eye contact between soloist and conductor had an anticipatory effect, like a moment of hesitation before a youthful kiss, that was a delightfully effective musical moment.
After intermission, the size of the orchestra increased considerably for Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 (the “Rhenish”). From the start of this larger, bolder Romantic work, Varga and the orchestra brought to the fore the flow of its larger architectural development. In the final movement, Varga literally danced at times as he conducted, bending his knees and twisting his torso for emphasis, when drawing from the orchestra the particular rhythmic character he wanted. The brass, especially the horn section, had a good time of it with this music. They and the principal winds were acknowledged by Varga in the ovations at the end. It was a satisfying performance of the Schumann symphony, with forceful impact but without overreaching.
Like last week, this is again a two-concert rather than three-concert week for the ASO. The final performance is this evening.