San Jose Mercury News
By Georgia Rowe
October 3, 2014
BERKELEY -- It's a little early for the "Best of 2014" lists, but don't be surprised if Jennifer Koh's appearance in Thursday's season-opening concert by the Berkeley Symphony goes down as one of the year's finest.
Joining music director Joana Carneiro and the orchestra as soloist in Sibelius' Violin Concerto in D minor -- a famously difficult and often maligned work -- Koh gave the kind of fiercely focused, technically brilliant performance that makes doubters into true believers.
Koh's appearance was the dazzling highlight of Thursday's concert, but it was by no means the only attraction. Carneiro launched the symphony's 2014-15 season with splendid playing all around.
On paper, the program didn't look extraordinary; it followed what has become a tried-and-true formula for modern orchestral concerts: a big Romantic concerto, an orchestral warhorse and a short new work by a living composer.
Formula aside, though, results exceeded expectations. Starting her sixth season in Berkeley, Carneiro made one of her most impressive showings to date. The Lisbon-born maestra, always an energetic podium presence, seems to have reached a new level with her musicians. Thursday, she was in control from the start, leading a unified ensemble and delivering dynamic performances of the Sibelius work, Elgar's Variations on an Original Theme for Orchestra ("Enigma") and the world premiere of Oscar Bettison's "Sea Shaped."
Still, it was Koh who made the greatest impact. Anyone who's heard the violinist in recent Bay Area appearances -- including her mesmerizing turn in Philip Glass's "Einstein on the Beach," presented by Cal Performances in Zellerbach Hall two years ago -- knows that she has matured into a formidable artist.
Any violinist must be, in order to take on Sibelius' daunting concerto. Introduced in 1904, the score places huge demands on its soloist -- and Koh met each one with arresting poise, ravishing tone, and her own brand of interpretive fire.
Koh rejects the Romantic excess that often dominates performances of this concerto, opting instead for a clear-eyed urgency that blazes through the work's knotty emotional turns. Her playing in the first movement's brief cadenza radiated heat, and the heart-on-the-sleeve themes that followed sounded even richer for her restraint. Carneiro gave her generous support, with the orchestra brooding and swelling in big waves of sound. The movement's coda was irresistibly dramatic.
Carneiro paced the Adagio, introduced by sweet-toned woodwinds, for maximum impact, and Koh delivered her part in exquisite phrases. The finale pulsed with energy; the writing here is fast and virtuosic, and Koh sailed through it with diamond-bright tone and remarkable expressiveness.
After intermission, Carneiro conducted an enveloping performance of Elgar's "Enigma" Variations -- one that proved an apt choice for demonstrating the orchestra's sound (and that of Zellerbach Hall, now boasting a superb Meyer Sound system, which has effectively eliminated the sonic dead zones that long plagued the venue).
Elgar's opening theme was briskly paced, with Carneiro summoning an alluring combination of orchestral warmth and exuberance. The 14 variations that follow -- each a musical tribute to one of the composer's friends -- were aptly characterful, and Carneiro shaped them in episodes of considerable charm and dramatic sweep. The "Nimrod" variation brought some of the orchestra's finest ensemble playing of the evening; elsewhere, there were fine individual contributions from players throughout the ensemble, among them principal violist Tiantian Lan, cellist Carol Rice and clarinetist Roman Fukshansky.
The program began with Bettison's "Sea Shaped," a 13-minute essay inspired by the ever-changing nature of the ocean. The British-American composer begins it with strings and percussion evoking a landscape shrouded in mist; gradually, the strings recede, and brass and woodwinds come to the fore. If the entire work, on first hearing, seemed to lack a distinctive profile, Carneiro's carefully conducted performance conjured plenty of atmosphere.
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