By Richard Scheinin
September 24, 2010
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Rhapsodic Musings: 21st century works for solo violin
Conductor Joana Carneiro, left, and soloist Jennifer Koh after their performance at
the Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, Calif. on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2010.
(Dean Coppola/Staff) ( Dean Coppola )

Brilliant violinist does double duty at Berkeley Symphony season opener

BERKELEY -- For her opening 2010-11 program with the Berkeley Symphony, conductor Joana Carneiro stepped onstage -- with a skip, actually, as she first came into view -- and wished her audience, "Happy New Season." The effect was something like saying, "Happy Christmas," as if Carneiro were initiating a new holiday for Thursday's audience at Zellerbach Hall.

She then introduced her soloist: "She's the bravest violinist I've ever met -- Jenny Koh!"

Out stepped Jennifer Koh, one of the more brilliant violinists in the ascending generation of players, to attempt an outrageous double-marathon. First she would perform Beethoven's great Violin Concerto in D major, a 40-minute work streaming with dense and dolce passagework for the soloist. Then, after intermission, she would grapple with John Adams' Violin Concerto, a 35-minute bruiser -- an act of cruelty inflicted by the composer on his soloist, one might call it, if it weren't such a beguiling behemoth of a concerto.

Any other conductor in any other city would have positioned Adams' rambunctious work (from 1993) before Beethoven's magnificent warhorse (from 1806). Not Carneiro, 33, who is beginning her second season here and who trusted her audience not to leave at intermission. The crowd stayed put: So far, the Berkeley audience is literally cheering on Carneiro's brand of programming -- right now in the Bay Area, it is unsurpassed for sheer gumption and excitement.

That said, was the concert an out-and-out success? No. The performance was inconsistent. But was it exciting? Absolutely. There's huge potential here. If the conductor and her musicians will seize the opportunity, they'll soon be teaching the rest of the region's orchestras something about classical music as a living, breathing enterprise.

Now, what worked best? Berkeley may be a mecca for what's new, but Beethoven won out. Koh's performance was a distillation of sweetness and steely resolve; superfine imperturbability.

For Carneiro, the piece is a heart-song, leaning into the Romantic era. And for much of the opening Allegro, the orchestra might have been draping the soloist in moonlight as the violinist unfurled Beethoven's long ribbons of melody. (Intimations, there, of Adams.) Koh's aerial lines would dissolve into the quiet accompaniment of a rumble in the low strings. Or the orchestra would rise to a spine-straightening forte, setting the stage for Koh's juicy chording through Fritz Kreisler's cadenza.

It wasn't always clear that Carneiro's dramatic choreography -- broad sweeping gestures, angled torso snaps -- was shaping the sound to the extent she desired. There was some rhythmic instability, for example, at the movement's slow midpoint.

Yet the Larghetto was soft and richly colored. Koh, playing exquisitely, kept turning toward the players behind her, as if they were her dancing partners. And Carneiro buoyed the soloist throughout the closing Rondo, which galloped and glowed, gorgeously. The audience demanded three sets of bows.

After intermission, Koh returned for Marathon Part II. (The hot pink gown she wore Thursday seemed to say, "This is all pretty outrageous, isn't it?")

She was exceptional. The orchestra was not. This is a dense and relentlessly physical work, saturated with rhythm, roiling and popping with color and texture. Wind whirling through underground tunnels. Boiling mudpots. Swirling Stravinsky-esque fireworks.

Carneiro didn't muster the sound, which too often was dispersed, rather than gathering it into the coursing energy and HD imagery of Berkeley-based Adams' score. Perhaps taking on such a demanding and not-often-played work after a six-month layoff was too much for Carneiro and the orchestra, who are still building their partnership. (Last season, Carneiro replaced Kent Nagano, who led the orchestra for 30 years.) Or maybe there's a different explanation: Another full day of rehearsal was needed.

Well, let's focus on Koh, who blasted through the thick, un-spooling hyper-melodic passages -- no rest! -- of the first movement. It was controlled savagery; she might as well have been playing with knives. The second movement, Chaconne, was iced and eerie stasis. (The orchestra was best here.) The final Toccare was a bobsled run flipping into a barnyard dance, executed by Koh with screw-tightening pressure and panache -- and inciting wild cheers from the audience, as Adams took the stage to celebrate with soloist, ambitious conductor and all the musicians.

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