The Grand Rapids Press
By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk
November 7, 2009
The Romani people, for hundreds of years, were some of the most persecuted on Earth.
Their tormentors, however, were fascinated by their music.
An evening of Hungarian music, authentic and not so authentic, was on the menu for the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Classical Series concert on Friday.
Serving the meal was a son of the Magyar people of Hungary, guest conductor Gregory Vajda, a bandleader with passion as well as cheek.
No appetizer for the audience of 998 in DeVos Performance Hall. Right to the main course with Johannes Brahms’ Violin Concerto followed by Zoltan Kodaly’s Variations on a Hungarian Folksong.
Brahms, of course, was neither Gypsy nor Hungarian, but listening to Gypsy cafe music was one of the guilty pleasures of his life.
Kodaly was the real deal, not simply a Hungarian musician but a pioneering ethnomusicologist who spent much of his life recording the folk tunes of his people.
Violinist Jennifer Koh, a winner of the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1994, was pressed upon to scale the heights of Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major, one of the monumental works for the instrument. She succeeded spectacularly.
Brahms was a throwback, a romantic at heart who worked by-the-book in classical forms. So, too, does Koh straddle two eras, a fiddler with today’s expected technical skills who nonetheless slides effortlessly into 19th century makeup.
Hers was a performance that presented a nobility of character to the outer world in the sweeping first movement while offering glimpses of the tender heart lying within in the second.
No mere showpiece, though the concerto’s demands are formidable, the soloist is a part of the orchestra as well as above it. The dialogue is continuous.
Koh’s cadenza poured forth emotion as if she had upended a barrel.
The bottom line is Koh’s interpretation likely would have satisfied the expectations of 19th century audiences. Her burnished technique in the finale would have unraveled their cravats.
Vajda and the orchestra, in support, were on the heavy side in much of the concerto.
Kodaly’s Variations on a folk tune titled “The Peacock” are the United Nations in sound. French Impressionism, Asian exoticism, Gypsy influences and American film scores from the 1930s and 40s all populate within its borders.
This is a scrumptious, tour-de-force for the entire orchestra, pretty much section by section. Some heroic work was heard from the woodwinds, but Vajda pulled a lot of character out of the entire ensemble.
Vajda knows this piece well. The orchestra does not. Couple that with a conductor and orchestra still getting to know each other, and you have a measure of uncertainty.
Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops used to play this piece quite a lot. Why it disappeared is a mystery to me.
On to dessert. The program ended with the three Hungarian Dances of Brahms, the only three the composer orchestrated himself.
Vajda was off and running with No. 1 before he hardly set foot on the podium, and his freewheeling reading said he was having fun.
A repeat of one served as a playful encore at night’s end. The audience had fun, too.
Copyright ©2009 The Grand Rapids Press