The Birmingham News
By Michael Huebner
March 12, 2010
Reason number one to hear the Alabama Symphony this weekend: violinist Jennifer Koh.
Only in her early 30s, Koh has already established herself as a top-flight virtuoso, and has taken a loaned 1727 Stradivarius along for the ride. At Friday's Alabama Symphony MasterWorks concert, the Chicago-area native gave a performance of Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto that will be long remembered for its gripping passion and unrelenting energy. It helps, of course, to be performing one of the greatest concertos of the 20th century, but the sweet, bold sound emanating from her Strad, apparent from the first bow strokes, placed this performance in a class of its own.
In the first two movements, guest conductor Thomas Wilkins and the ASO matched her yearning, mournful sighs and swooning glides with shapely swells and ebbs, but the finale, with its complex syncopations and mind-numbing meter changes, made for edge-of-the-seat listening. Koh's frequent glances to the conductor and orchestral soloists ensured a tight ensemble. The final upward arpeggio and accented chord sizzled and sparked.
The concert opened with a suave, delicate reading of Ravel's "Le Tombeau de Couperin" that stayed in an even middling dynamic and expressive range. Its pastel colors were brightened by buoyant and finely blended playing from the woodwinds, a lush string section and finely spun solos from oboist Machiko Ogawa Schlaffer.
Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" was played as expected -- loud, colorful and brassy. Easily one of the most popular works in the orchestral repertoire, it has fallen victim to expectations, and Wilkins rarely ventured beyond a safe and secure interpretational range. He possesses a clear beat and strong guidance, and the performance was, for the most part, crisply etched. But there was little else to note that recordings and performances haven't already noted. Still, it was a showcase for ASO's fine brass section and, in particular, tubist Andrew Miller.
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