Midori and the Santa Fe Pro Musica Orchestra
The draw at last weekend’s concerts of the Santa Fe Pro Musica Orchestra, conducted by Thomas O’Connor, was Schumann’s Violin Concerto, in which the solo part was entrusted to the violinist Midori. It was one of the last works Schumann wrote prior to being committed to an insane asylum in early 1854, and Joseph Joachim, the virtuoso for whom it was intended, found its shortcomings so palpable that he had it removed from public access out of respect for his friend. It was not premiered publicly until 1937, and although it has enjoyed an uptick of interest in the past two decades, performances in modern times have been few and far between, if not nearly as scarce as Pro Musica’s program book maintained.
Beautiful things lie within the pages of this concerto, although not enough to keep it buoyant throughout its half-hour span. Midori played with the delicate sensibility and general finesse one would have anticipated, but her approach failed to disguise the work’s deficiencies. Indeed, she sometimes exacerbated them. The dense, dark orchestral exposition that opens the concerto fails to generate momentum, and she apparently hoped to counter that by investing the violin’s entrance solo with a remarkable amount of interpretative detail. This included drenching it in rubato — rhythmic massaging of phrases — and that served to hold back the energy even more, precisely where the opposite was needed so desperately. Schumann’s tempo markings, which prove often problematic in this work, advise the musicians to take this opening movement “not too fast.” The players adhered to this to a nearly fatal degree. Lyrical grace is one thing, but this reading of the first movement kept threatening to drag to a standstill, not helped a bit by orchestration that tends toward the gummy.
The prayerful slow movement was more successful, with Midori’s rich, penetrating tone conveying clearly plotted phrases more convincingly. She made a committed case for the finale, too, blessedly opting for a tempo some 20 beats per minute faster than Schumann specified. While occasional episodes sprung to life, others came across as just noodling, and the piece never picked up much steam before ending with a thud. There’s nothing wrong with revisiting this work occasionally, but even as fine a soloist as Midori tended to confirm that Joachim’s instincts to squelch the piece were not entirely ill-advised. Given more time, Schumann (consulting with Joachim) surely would have revised this concerto greatly; but he did not have more time.
The concert began with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 in a dutiful performance that conveyed some nice touches — most memorably an elegant transition into the trio section of the minuet movement, where duetting horns assumed the lead with flawless security. More involving on the whole was Aaron Jay Kernis’ Music Celestis , his expansion for string orchestra of the slow movement from his 1990 String Quartet No. 1. It is a meditative, audience-friendly piece, reminiscent of Barber’s Adagio for Strings in its mood while also drawing on the vocabulary of Copland, Bernstein, and, in a few grandly voiced chords, Vaughan Williams’ “Tallis Fantasia.” The string section did itself proud, shimmering effectively through extended passages in upper positions. Toward the end, the overall effect was enhanced still further by fine solo input from violinists Stephen Redfield and Elizabeth Baker and violist Kim Fredenburgh.
— James M. Keller