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17.6.05

Repin in a Brewbaker World Premiere

With Yuri Temirkanov still stuck in St. Petersburg due to a back injury that prevents him from travel, James Judd stepped in to conduct the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in a program that featured Vadim Repin—arguably the finest violinist today—in two concertos. Daniel Brewbaker's Playing and Being Played (the ink barely dry) got its world premiere and was preceded by Tchaikovsky's violin concerto, a work that Repin has proven to excel in. (His recording with Gergiev is by far my favorite among modern traversals.) Reshpigi's Pines of Rome concluded the evening.

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P. Tchaikovsky, N. Myaskovsky, Violin Concertos, Repin/Gergiev
Repin has a burnished, rich, chisled, and at the same time extremely agile tone, which was notable from the first notes in the Tchaikovsky. Much has been made of the ‘critical’ reception of the concerto after its premiere. Frustrating as it was for Tchaikovsky, it delights us now to read such erudite boneheadedness as Hanslick's verdict. And wrong though he was, this undisputed master of catchy word imagery left us with the delightful sound-bite that op. 35 for the first time raised the possibility that music might stink to the ears. Nowadays, audiences smell nothing other than perhaps a lightly perfumed air it seems to exude. The performance was a bit heavy in the first movement Allegro moderato and remained insistently earthbound. It had a fierce and furious finale but not the compelling drive that can, for example, be found in the vintage account of Milstein with Steinberg. The middle movement, Canzonetta: Andante, cannot but delight, but Repin and his orchestral partner really took off only in the Finale: Allegro vivacissimo. Though Repin cannot be credited with an exceedingly big tone, his 1708 "Ruby" Stradivarius allowed him to sound delectable (perhaps with a touch of viola-like dark hues) in any position. The impressive fleetness he showcased was all his doing. The BSO under Judd responded with the right amount of brooding, Russian peasant-like thump in the earthy sections, and virtuosic enthusiasm in the quicksilver passages. Not a ‘great’ performance, but an eminently enjoyable one. (Repin, as it were, could play jet-lagged, borderline routine, and still put most other violinists to shame.)

With the score of Brewbaker's violin concerto in front of me (my acquaintance had snatched it from the hands of the composer, just before it started), I got to read the Rumi poem that served as its inspiration:
There are no words to explain,
no tounge,
how when that player touches
the strings, it is me playing
and being played,
how existence turns
around this music, how stories
grow from the trunk,
how cup and mouth
swallow each other with the wine,
how a garnet
stone come from nowhere is puzzled
by these miners,
how even if you look for us
hair's breadth by hair's breadth, you'll
not find anything. We're inside
the hair
How last night a spear struck, how
the lion drips red, how someone pulls
at my robe of tattered patches.
"It’s all I have?
Where are your clothes?"
How shams of Tabriz
lives outside time, how what happens
to me happens there

RUMI (1207-1275)
Winds, especially oboes, are enveloped in a give and take with the violin, taking the concerto through hauntingly beautiful melodies. Marimba accentuated, the listener is lead into a percussion clockwork that tip-toes along with us. Rich in contrasts, easy to listen to (and easy to read), the concerto establishes early on that it is a crowd-pleasing and rather excellent addition to the repertoire. Though it has many diverse elements – light Shostakovich and Mahler effects in the orchestration with Bernstein liberally sprinkled in – it never sounds like a soupy hodge-podge of disjointed ideas but rather like a novel (if not very ‘modern’) delicacy. It happily embraces tonality that is increasingly welcomed by contemporary composers. With new works like this being composed, audiences need not fear the modern anymore – if "fear" is indeed what kept them from accepting works that had so often been gratuitously difficult.

The BSO played diligently and with great effect and very few missed entries – probably spurred on by the presence of the composer and because they, presumably, liked the pleasant work, too. There was a time when calling a work unoffensive was the damnation of the most devastating kind... No longer. Exploring the very high registers of the violin at length but balancing that with serene as well as furiously fast sections (towards the end mostly in ¾ over 32nd notes gives us a rich palette of the violin's and its player's abilities. With someone like Repin championing it, it shines brightly and ought to make its way into the repertoire. Although it lasts roughly twenty minutes, it seemed about half as long – compliment enough itself. Composer and players were received with unanimous standing ovations. Music with a pulse as it delights Ionarts.

Resphigi's Pines of Rome can be quipped to be "trite and true" – but it served its function extremely well, its calm and low, relaxed state (even in fff) during the first three movements being the perfect antidote to the high-pitched frenzy of the Brewbaker finale. Pines of the Appian Way (its last movement) is stunning to hear live, every time. The concert was easily one of the best orchestral presentations I have heard this season (DSCH 11, Mahler 9, Elgar 2 to mention a few other highlights), and it was surprising to see so many empty seats given the combination of stellar artist, popular works, and world premiere. It ought to be heard – and the chance to do so exists tonight at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm and at Strathmore on Saturday at 8 pm.

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