United States Mozart, Bruch, Beethoven: Ray Chen (violin), Bamberg Symphony Orchestra / Christoph Eschenbach (conductor), Royce Hall, UCLA. Los Angeles, 17.2.2017. (DD)
Mozart – Overture to Don Giovanni
Bruch – Concerto No.1 for Violin and Orchestra in G minor Op.26
Beethoven – Symphony No.3 in E-flat major Op.55, ‘Eroica’
On the wettest night in recent Los Angeles’ meteorological history, The Bamberg Symphony Orchestra (Bamberger Symphoniker), under the baton of Christoph Eschenbach and featuring the prodigious violinist Ray Chen, floated into Royce Hall at UCLA for the first of a series of three concerts in Southern California, sponsored by the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, one of the area’s most interesting and eclectic venues.
There can be little doubt that the rainstorm kept some symphonic fans at bay, but those who elected to brave the elements were treated to sturdy Austro-Germanic fare: a Mozart opera overture, a Bruch violin concerto and a Beethoven symphony to end the evening.
The Bamberger Symphoniker, founded shortly after the end of the Second World War, has served as a kind of cultural ambassador for Germany, and its tours are many and often. For this nine-city tour, the orchestra promoted the considerable skills of Taiwanese-born violinist Ray Chen as soloist in the Bruch Violin Concerto No.1 (and alternating in this tour with his performances of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor).
The program began with a dramatic if somewhat perfunctory Overture to Don Giovanni. Mozart’s original version slides gracefully into the rise of the curtain and the introductory aria from the Don’s faithful servant, Leporello; here, the overture, adapted for concert use, makes a sharp left into cadence traffic and parks in the middle of the score. It’s an original choice as a concert opener even if it does lead to a somewhat jarring conclusion.
Ray Chen has had a long association with Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No.1, perhaps achieving an artistic and personal height in his performance with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra at the Nobel Prize Concert in 2012. The UCLA performance certainly did not disappoint. The concerto is among the best known in the violin repertoire, and deservedly so: one beautifully crafted melody follows after another, great surges of emotion lead to moments of delicate tenderness, and Chen finely walks the delicate line between shameless melodrama and elegant refinement. It was a stunning and revelatory rendition of a piece thought by some to be a bit of a musical chestnut.
Chen further proved his mettle with a beautifully crafted encore: a sublime reading of the Gavotte en Rondeau from Bach’s Partita No.3. Each phrase differed from its predecessor, each made perfect sense in its context, and the dance was always hovering near. Understated and refined, it stood in sharp contrast, yet complemented, the Bruch concerto.
After the intermission, Eschenbach and the orchestra dug into an expansive reading of Beethoven’s Symphony No.3, ‘Eroica’, with an intelligent, if moderate, pace. Indeed, the tempos generally fell on the slower side of what seems to be the current norm, but nevertheless formed a coherent and fully-realized vision. For this auditor, the pace never dragged, and one was privy to interior moments in this masterpiece that can otherwise be lost; nonetheless, the urgency and driving force of the music was never lost.
Where it worked best may have been in the second movement, the funeral march, where the solemnity was drawn and underscored in dramatic fashion, ultimately giving rise to the lift in the scherzo movement. Eschenbach’s tempi well fitted his overall concept, and the symphony’s conclusion was made even more dramatic in its relentless and explosive propulsion—the reviewer’s favorite word in describing most Beethoven symphonies, and for good reason.
We left Royce Hall quickly in order to see if our car had been carried away down Sunset Boulevard by the rain. Under our umbrellas, we heard disjunct orchestral strains between intermittent squalls and distant thunder. Though sorry not to be able to tell readers what the encore was, we were also relieved to have left at the end of the ‘Eroica’. Some pieces are better left to linger in the ear.