Thursday, May 21, 2020

Korngold’s Violin Concerto in Detroit

Yesterday afternoon I received my latest “watch party” invitation from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. As in the past, I took this as an incentive to visit the DSO Replay Web site, rather than “attending the party” through Facebook. I was more interested in exploring a single composition, rather than partaking of what amounts to a synthesized program, juxtaposing performances from different concert dates.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold (from the Library of Congress collection of photographs of George Grantham Bain, probably taken around 1912, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

On this occasion that composition happened to be Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Opus 35 violin concerto in D major. The performance took place on November 5, 2017 with Juraj Valčuha on the podium, leading the DSO and violin soloist Stefan Jackiw. I made this selection not only for the music, which has been a long-time favorite thanks to my CD of the recording made by Jascha Heifetz, but also because I have experienced performances by both the conductor and the violinist here in San Francisco. I have consistently enjoyed Valčuha’s visits to the podium of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) and was totally blown away when he devoted his last visit, made a little less than a year ago, to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 65 (eighth) symphony, which he presented with all of the dark intensity that the score demanded. Jackiw, on the other hand, visited Herbst Theatre this past January for a San Francisco Performances recital in this season’s PIVOT series of concerts, giving a duo recital with harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani.

One of the reasons I chose this particular DSO Replay selection is that I had not heard either of these artists perform anything remotely close to the Korngold concerto in terms of either style or rhetoric. It certainly was not out of a hunger for more exposure to the concerto, since I wrote about a Chandos Korngold album almost exactly two month ago. Rather, it was because the Korngold concerto differs so much from what we tend to expect of a violin concerto. Many would object to at least one of those differences, which was how Korngold appropriated music he had originally written for Hollywood film scores. However, as I had observed about the Korngold album, Charles Ives “had no trouble appropriating tunes from his everyday life, turning them into thoroughly engaging listening experiences; so we can hardly criticize Korngold for doing the same thing!”

Both conductor and soloist took a rather sober approach to performance, perhaps in an effort to get beyond the cinematic legacy of much of the thematic material. Nevertheless, about halfway through the final movement, Valčuha tended to tip his hand a bit, allowing a slightly refined smile to emerge around the time that the principal theme started to get raucous. Jackiw, on the other hand, seemed to maintain an intense focus, frequently closing his eyes, perhaps in an effort to enhance perception of his own intonation. That attention may well have been in order, since there were several instances of portamento that seemed to provide a front for his efforts to home in on just the right pitch. Fortunately, there were only a few of those moments. However, his stern focus may well have been his effort to conceal that he had not yet internalized the proper inter-pitch relations in some of Korngold’s broad melodic lines.

As has been the case in several of these video documents, the video direction left much to be desired. For the better part of the concerto, the camera rarely wandered away from soloist, conductor, or the string section. This betrayed many of the more innovative aspects of Korngold’s instrumentation. There were a few particularly plangent passages for cor anglais, and there was never a camera shot to honor any of them. (If one knew were to look, one could see the cor anglais player behind the soloist; but most of those glances revealed her sitting with her instrument.) Korngold also served up several stimulating passages for celeste, but the video work only came to appreciate their significance when the last one was executed.

Over the course of writing this piece, I realized that I had not yet had a chance to listen to the concerto in Davies Symphony Hall. As far as I can tell, it was last performed by SFS in December of 2006 when soloist Hilary Hahn was conducted by David Zinman. This was before I had begun to build up my writing chops. The San Francisco Chronicle review by Joshua Kosman described the performance as one of two “cinematic retreads” on the program. Back in 2006 I may well have reacted the same way; but these days (particularly these days) I tend to believe that a healthy dose of high spirits is good for the soul. If those spirits happen to have emerged from the Hollywood Dream Factory, I am still happy to enjoy them for what they are worth!

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