El Paso Times
By Doug Pullen
September 27, 2009
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Koh enthralls in EPSO season opener

I am in no way qualified to review the El Paso Symphony Orchestra. Or any orchestra for that matter. So I'm not going to, but I will give you my untrained response to the 79th season-opening concert I saw Saturday night (actually, it was the second of two) at the Plaza Theatre.

I've spent the entirety of my career focusing on what I guess you could call non-serious music, or pop music and everything not classical or opera. Call it an occupational hazard (hey, I was a music critic in the Detroit market for nearly 20 years, so I've got an excuse).
There's a lot more I don't know about this music than I know. My bad.

Focusing on pop and rock and R&B and rap and everything but classical and opera has deprived me of the pleasures of these musics. It's deprived me of moments like the one I experienced Saturday when guest artist Jennifer Koh, an up-and-coming NYC violinist known for her superlative technique and intense performances, all but created sparks with that Strad she's borrowing.

Like I said, I don't have the technical knowledge to know how well she played Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, D Major, op. 35. I don't know if her bowing technique was nonpareil, or if her pizzicato was particularly plucky. But drawing from my long experience with rock and other musics, I can say that she is the classical equivalent of a lead guitarist who threads his way through a song with such force and command that the rest of the band, or, in this case, the 78 members of the orchestra, have to keep up with the fiddler and the one violin concerto the Russian romantic wrote.

She was a joy to watch, all punkish with her short-cut helmet of jet black hair, all feminine in her sky blue evening gown, the black-clad orchestra and its besuited maestra, Sarah Ioaniddes, as her backdrop. It was impressive how quickly Koh could zone in and reach that heightened plane that so many of the great soloists, whether they're Isaac Stern or Jimmy Page, seem to attain when they are in the moment.

Koh was fascinating to watch. She'd close her eyes, move ever so slightly to the music, then, when it was time to bow up and do her thing, she'd just nail it with the intensity of a guitar god. She's not a show off mind you, not one of those musicians who masks mediocrity with a lot of grandiose posturing and moves designed to distract you from their averageness. No, Koh stands in place, those warm eyes firmly shut, and lets the music flow through her, occasionally bending back when a particularly fierce run bolted out of her like some plugged in, wired up rock musician.

It was a sight, and sound, to behold. At least for this untrained ear. Conductor Ioannides wisely played second fiddle to the guest star, muting her own theatrics so Koh could do her thing every so intensely yet subtly.

Talk about a fast half hour.

Can't say the same for the second half, in which the maestra and the orchestra tackled Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5, B-flat major, op. 100. It was a difficult, sometimes dissonant piece to this untrained ear, a work Ioannides, loved and loathed for her more contemporary bent, called a "masterpiece."

I watched the second half of the program from the mezzanine (I sat with my old boss at the long-gone, lamented Herald-Post, Betty Ligon) and got a better perspective of the intensity of Ioannides' performance and the focused way with which the orchestra responded. The conductor is all animation and focus, a woman of many moods and touches, from stern and heavy to light and mousy in a good way. She does what it takes.

I also got to see and hear first-hand the kind of grumbling I've heard about the conductor since before I got here last year - the graying traditionalists, like my outspoken mom (who dropped her season tickets after the '07-'08 season) don't like this so-called "new music." They don't like the "noise." They like the traditional classics, like Beethoven and Bach.

But this program was called "Russian Spectacular," showcasing two very different Russian composers from different periods of time. But I heard one guy grumble something unhappy about "20th century music" during one dissonant passage. I watched a couple in front of me sit stiffly. She occasionally looked at him as if to say, 'You don't like this either, do you?'"
And in their defense there were times when the composer's World War II-era ode eschewed the traditionalist's staple, melody, to better illustrate the sense of conflict inherent in the piece, only to come off as noisy and, occasionally, dull.

Again, I have an untrained ear, but I swear there were times when the strings sounded off, the cellos couldn't quite hit those tough high notes and even the woodwinds sounded a little flat at one point. Is that an orchestra incapable of mastering this stuff, a conductor incapable of commandeering the material or just difficult music that trips up the best of them?

Don't know. I do know that the audience around me on the floor during Koh's segment seemed a lot more enthralled than the one that sat in the mezzanine - prime territory for those who want to see the whole ensemble, not just the people up front, which is what the lower floor is relegated to - during the Prokofiev.

© 2009 El Paso Times

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