With Soloist Koh, Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra Shined


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Photos by Eslah Attar.

Another day, another incredible violinist. Such has been the rule thus far in the 2016 season of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra.

And that’s to say nothing of the orchestra. Just as it was Thursday night, Chautauqua’s resident ensemble was again in resplendent form July 2, complementing its guest with stellar performances of works by Bedřich Smetana and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. One, a relative rarity; the other as well-known as they come.

No one could label the CSO’s second program of the season imaginative. Neither, though, could anyone call it dull. Not by a long shot. Not with music director Rossen Milanov in charge.

Where Hadelich Thursday merely returned to Chautauqua, and played for what might as well have been old friends, Koh made her Institution debut Saturday, stepping on stage with nothing but her illustrious global reputation to precede her.

Not that she was a hard sell. On the contrary, after her showing here, one suspects Koh, too, will be a regular.

To describe Koh’s take on the Dvořák Violin Concerto as unique would be to do her an injustice. Fairer, and more accurate, would be to label it deeply personal, the fruit of an original mind, heart and talent.

Plenty of artists bring intensity to the first movement. Koh, however, mustered a fire akin to rage, thickly laced with grit. Better still, she cinched the music tight, weaving together its several episodes into a cohesive, compelling whole.

One could do little but smile, meanwhile, through Koh’s rendition of the famous Adagio. Her mellifluous tone and melting lyricism were easy on the ears, to be sure, but the real virtues of the performance were the tenderness of feeling she poured into every bar and her abundant, insightful turns of phrase.

Koh’s playful side emerged in full splendor in the Finale. This, too, though, wasn’t just some tacked-on, virtuoso romp. No, in addition to infectious ebullience, the violinist also supplied robust strength, a hard rhythmic profile and a refreshing willingness to engage with the orchestra, which in turn provided attentive and responsive support. Put simply, Koh’s portion of the evening Saturday felt all too short.

Milanov himself had an equally interesting statement to make with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. Conducting without a score, the maestro Saturday proved not only that he knows the score inside and out but also that he truly understands it, that he grasps its emotional and dramatic heart.

Like Koh, Milanov wasn’t content with the usual. Throughout the lengthy work, the conductor kept demanding and receiving more: deeper melancholy, broader sweep, richer textures, wilder joy. Where others see limits, Milanov saw invitations to push harder. Rather than exaggeration, though, the approach led only to exhilaration.

None could have remained unmoved by the first movement, so lustrous were the low strings, so varied were the tempos Milanov adopted. Likewise the Andante Cantabile. Milanov took it at a ponderous pace but justified the choice with wondrous tonal warmth and long, organic development. Not to mention a positively gorgeous horn solo. 

But it was in the Finale where the merits of Milanov’s approach truly crystallized. There, as all the darkness and sentimentality of the first two movements transformed into heartened resolve, that surging sense of triumph came as an opposite but equal reaction, hitting home as forcefully as the earlier emotions were intense. Not a bad way to conclude a Saturday night. 

Milanov also got the night off to a rousing start. With the “Dance of the Comedians” from Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, the orchestra under his baton caused the whole house to sit up and take note. Though a dance by name, and duly graceful, the music Saturday effectively served as a bright, springy, and welcome wake-up call.

It’s risky, in music, to make predictions. Still, judging by the first two performances by the CSO this season, it’s safe to say 2016 is going to be a winning musical summer indeed.

Zachary Lewis is classical music and dance critic of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland

Zachary Lewis

The author Zachary Lewis