In Philadelphia, Kavakos and the orchestra in profoundly imaginative Shostakovich

United StatesUnited States Shostakovich, Wynton Marsalis: Leonidas Kavakos (violin), Philadelphia Orchestra / Cristian Mâcelaru (conductor). Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 14.12.2019. (BJ)

Leonidas Kavakos (c) Marco Borggreve

Shostakovich – Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor, Op.77

Wynton MarsalisBlues Symphony (Philadelphia premiere)

This is turning out to be quite a season for violinism. Comparisons may proverbially be odorous, but the opportunity to listen comparatively to multiple performances of the great classics is always illuminating, and no fewer than three performances of the Beethoven Violin Concerto are providing an excellent insight into the sheer range of style and expression that the work happily accommodates: we have lately had a revelatory account by the young Spaniard Francisco Fullana with the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, and a less exploratory but warmly graceful interpretation by Gil Shaham with the Philadelphia Orchestra, to be followed in April by Pamela Frank with the Curtis Symphony Orchestra.

Meanwhile, the program under review brought us one of the finest exponents of the instrument now before the public, with a profoundly imaginative and technically breathtaking performance of the first and greater of Shostakovich’s two violin concertos by the Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos, whose mastery has in my experience ranged over the years from some superb Mozart to equally outstanding Sibelius and Bartók.

I would not claim that his reading of the Shostakovich masterpiece erased memories of its illustrious dedicatee David Oistrakh, but it did arouse them, and that is high praise. Supported by spectacular playing from the orchestra under Cristian Mâcelaru’s direction, Kavakos communicated the saturnine passion of the first movement and the quicksilver brilliance of the scherzo and finale with equal conviction, and realized no less vividly the highly original transition that the cadenza effects into the finale from the passacaglia slow movement, which featured especially strong contributions from the brass and from associate principal timpanist Angela Zator Nelson. (It was only a pity that the regrettable inconsiderateness of too many members of the audience resulted in what could not inaccurately have been labeled a concerto for violin, orchestra, and bronchial chorus.)

Wynton Marsalis is a trumpet-player of widely acknowledged talent, and I approached my first encounter with his symphonic music with high expectations. The propulsive energy and sparkling orchestration of the first of his Blues Symphony’s seven movements, touched off with delightfully unexpected offbeat piccolo incursions from Erica Peel, and ending in a sudden withdrawal of tone that surely owes something to one of Charles Ives’s favorite ploys, promised that those expectations were about to be fulfilled. But as the work continued on its roughly one-hour course, it seemed to me to demonstrate that, beyond a certain point, the more variety you endow a piece with, the less varied it begins to sound, for unrelenting variety ends up as sameness.

It’s not matter of great moment that Marsalis’s compositional method has resulted here in what is less a symphony than a suite; what does matter is that, despite the dedicated efforts of conductor and orchestra, I found the constant succession of contrasted and sometimes witty ideas increasingly — much as I hate to use the word — tedious, and the underpinning of a harmonic idiom largely beholden to the blues, attractive and evocative as it was to start with, in the long run only contributed to that impression.

Bernard Jacobson

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