Violinist makes sentiments of Barber concerto her own in triumphant performance; Annapolis Symphony gives Koh solid support as oboist, strings excel


Most of the visiting violinists who have soloed with the Annapolis Symphony in recent years haven't been too thrilling.

True, there was a hot Bruch G minor dished up by Canadian fiddler Lara St. John last spring.

But earlier last season, Livia Sohn gave a generic, homogenized account of the Sibelius Concerto. And in years past, we've heard concertmasters from some of America's best orchestras play intelligently and collegially, but without much pizazz.

Uri Pianka, concertmaster of the Houston Symphony, was the best of the lot.

The worst performance was the flat, tentative Brahms Concerto played by Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Herbert Greenberg in 1992, Gisele Ben-Dor's first season here. What a disappointment.

But when I left Maryland Hall Friday night, I was excited and full of joy, for I had just heard Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto performed by Jennifer Koh, a 22-year-old Chicagoan with a Tchaikovsky Competition Silver Medal and a burgeoning international career to her credit.

Technically, there's nothing she can't do on the fiddle, and her tone sings with an unforced lyricism that projects the sound of her 1727 Stradivarius throughout the hall with sumptuous clarity.

Best of all, she has made the lush, romantic sentiments that fill the Barber Concerto her own.

Her sense of when to express herself with ardor and when to scale back into a purer, more restrained sound was unerring. For all the emotionalism of her rendition, nothing sounded cloying or overdone.

She couldn't have been as convincing without exemplary support from conductor Leslie Dunner and his troops.

Delightful playing from the winds in the skittish second theme of the "Allegro moderato" lent great character to that opening movement, and principal oboist Fatma Daglar's handling of the solo that opens the "Andante" set a touching, bittersweet tone for what would follow.

Kudos also to the refurbished violin section, which hasn't sounded this good in years. They handled the ticklish opening to Bedrich Smetana's "Bartered Bride" Overture with authority, and it was expansive string sound that gave Dunner's account of the Sibelius Second Symphony its greatest impetus.

Dunner's Sibelius was unforced, unaffected and unfussy. Tempos were well-chosen throughout, and he had all the flags flying at the triumphal conclusion.

Only in the moody second movement did I hear moments of aimlessness as the darker Sibelian undercurrents were glossed over. But when the violins arrived at their gloriously ethereal entrance, things got better fast.

How appropriate, then, that Dunner reserved the evening's final applause for his strings who gave us a brisk, impassioned version of Sibelius' haunting "Andante Festivo" as an encore.

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