Violinist tames Beethoven with sweetness, strength


When a young violinist named Elissa Lee Kokkonen walked out on stage at Kraushaar Auditorium last night to play Beethoven's Violin Concerto with the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, I wracked my brain trying to remember why I had heard of her. It took only a few minutes of her playing to understand why.

Although she may not now be as celebrated as some of her contemporaries, Kokkonen is one of the biggest violin talents I've heard in years. This Beethoven piece is the dragon at the gate of the violinist's concerto repertory, a profound and sublime work that defeats most of those who would challenge it. It's a work that denies its secrets to even the most experienced and gifted fiddle players.

It was something of a shock, therefore, to hear so young a player -- Kokkonen appears to be barely out of her teens -- play this piece with such extraordinary sweetness and tenderness and with such underlying strength.

Kokkonen, who was born in Hong Kong but who moved to this country as a child to study with Aaron Rosand at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, has a tone of surpassing beauty at all dynamic levels and seems incapable of making an ugly sound. Like very few other violinists in the post-Oistrakh-Heifetz-Milsteinera, she treats her instrument with pTC respect, never abusing it in the attempt to impress an audience with an outsized sound. Like Rosand, she is a romantic player who is unafraid of sentiment: Beethoven's reputation for classical severity and serenity does not intimidate her.

By the clock, hers was a fairly brisk performance; but she never sounded rushed, and she always found time for imagination in every phrase. The individual beauties in her performance included a serene sense of well-being in the first movement; a slow movement that blossomed with feeling; an acutely judged transition between the second and third movements that stood one's hair on end with expectation; an artlessly joyous final movement; and fiddling in the treacherous Heifetz cadenzas that sizzled. All of this was incorporated into a reading of genuine architectural distinction that had the benefit of a fine accompaniment from the orchestra and its music director, Anne Harrigan.

Earlier, Harrigan delivered a rather rough-edged performance of Rossini's overture to "The Barber of Seville," a warm and atmospheric one of Puccini's "Chrisantemi," and an appropriately cheeky reading of David Schiff's rhythm-and-blues-influenced "Stomp."

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