A Boulanger Rarity Makes a Big Impact

05/02/2018

Lili Boulanger, Elgar, Rachmaninov: Vilde Frang (violin), Seattle Symphony Orchestra / Christian Măcelaru (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 3.2.2018 (ZC)

Lili BoulangerD’uin matin de printemps
Elgar – Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in B minor Op.61
Rachmaninov – Symphony No.3 in A minor Op.44

An early 20th-century program from the Seattle Symphony and guest conductor Christian Măcelaru yielded inconsistent results. Each work was written between 1909 and 1936, yet harkens back to the lush Romanticism of the previous century in contrast to the prevailing modernism of the time. Măcelaru and Norwegian soloist Vilde Frang struggled with Elgar’s epic Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, but the ensemble ultimately shone with Rachmaninov’s cinematic Symphony No.3. The evening’s opening piece gave audiences a rare glimpse of a brilliant but often overlooked composer’s small output.

In her short life, Lili Boulanger composed precious little, and what survived is rarely performed in the United States. But the Seattle Symphony opened the evening with her charming, miniature tone poem D’uin matin de printemps (Of a spring morning), which clocks in at only five minutes. But Boulanger’s genius is obvious. In this compressed format, Boulanger uses verdant orchestral writing to illustrate the wonder she hints at in her title. This performance hopefully sent audiences home inspired to learn more about a gifted composer.

Boulanger’s elegance was followed by a decidedly mixed bag. Elgar’s violin concerto has moments of profound beauty, brilliant passages for the solo violin, and effusive passion. Yet its sheer length, disparate episodes, and complicated structure necessitate a strong soloist or conductor. The final movement exemplifies these difficulties. Elgar develops multiple themes while recalling earlier movements. Meanwhile, the soloist is challenged with difficult violin arabesques, arpeggios, scales, chords, and a powerful cadenza against tremolo pizzicati.

Vilde Frang’s performance was frustrating. In the first movement, her powerful control and rich romantic tone were a marvel to behold. There is no traditional cadenza, but unrelenting tension between orchestra and soloist were enough to keep the audience on the edge of its seat. But once past Frang’s virtuosity and Măcelaru’s grip on the score, there wasn’t much to behold. In the third movement, the faults were laid bare: Solo pyrotechnics and orchestral details were abundant, but Frang and Măcelaru succumbed to Elgar’s demands without an overarching vision.

After finishing his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Rachmaninov composed his Third Symphony, and critics were initially lukewarm. The composer’s acclaim had been dependent on his work as a solo pianist—and works like the Rhapsody and his four piano concertos were more readily embraced. But vivid playing from the Seattle Symphony distinguished brought this work to life, and rejuvenated the audience. Unlike the Elgar concerto, Măcelaru pushed and pulled the ensemble to achieve dramatic extremes. Temporarily sitting in the concertmaster’s chair, principal second violin Elisa Barston offered up achingly beautiful solos in the second movement. Barston is one of the most talented musicians in the group, and deserves every opportunity to showcase her leadership. As Măcelaru coaxed vigorous playing from the orchestra, the final movement exploded with extroverted force.

Zach Carstensen

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