Violinist dazzles on daunting concerto
A performance of Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto is nothing to take lightly, either for the performers or the audience. The music digs in deep, across four weighty movements and one of the composer’s trademark massive cadenzas for the soloist, and there are challenges for everyone involved.
In her impressive showing with the San Francisco Symphony in Davies Symphony Hall on Thursday, Nov. 8, violinist Karen Gomyo didn’t insult our intelligence by making the thing seem easy. On the contrary — she matched the composer step for demanding step, producing a rendition that gleamed with the sweat of honest labor.
Together with guest conductor Jakub Hrusa, Gomyo — a Japanese-born virtuoso who now lives in Berlin — dived into
Shostakovich’s showpiece with an obvious respect for both the technical and interpretive difficulties ahead. The combination of craggy rhetoric, capacious formal scale and sheer fingerbusting passagework that infuses this concerto means that anyone can go astray at any moment.
Yet, by the time the piece drew to a close nearly 40 minutes later, Gomyo and Hrusa in partnership had conferred an air of triumph on the proceedings. Shostakovich’s expansive lines of thought, which can often seem discursive and even meandering in the wrong hands, emerged here with a welcome sense of formal tautness; the composer’s acrid sensibilities sounded inviting without losing their essential character.
Gomyo’s playing boasts a bold, steely beauty, which at least in this context made few concessions to traditional notions of lyricism or expressive warmth. (Her encore, a lovely account of the fourth of Astor Piazzolla’s “Six Tango Etudes,” offered a more overtly empathetic voice, though even here she made sure to keep the rhythms crisp and muscular.)
In the concerto’s broad opening movement, which the composer labeled “Nocturne,” Gomyo spun out long-breathed melodies with unflinching forthrightness, as if encouraging the listener to revel in the music’s dark, sinewy textures. The bustling scherzo — equally dark, even more corrosive — got a ferocious, precise reading.
But the glory of the performance came in the robust thirdmovement Passacaglia, which is also the concerto’s center of gravity. In this succession of variations on a theme, Gomyo brought out one character of the music after another, engaging in eloquent counterpoint with other members of the orchestra, delivering the solo part with insight and tact, and finally settling in to give a bravura account of the huge solo cadenza.
Hrusa, the young Czech conductor making a second appearance with the Symphony after a strong debut last year, matched her in both intensity and stolid power, qualities that came through again after intermission.
Borodin’s Symphony No. 2, in its first Symphony performance in more than a quarter century, got a coiled, explosive and briskly paced rendition, in which Hrusa leaned heavily on the oracular pronouncements of the first movement and the vivid energy of the finale. In between, Robert Ward imparted a winsome tenderness to the French horn solo that opens the slow movement.
Hrusa concluded with the Suite from Bartók’s ballet “The Miraculous Mandarin,” a rush of orchestral color and vivacity that featured wonderfully sinuous contributions from principal clarinetist Carey Bell. The rush of momentum leading into the suite’s final moments seemed to draw sustenance from all that had come before.
By the time the piece drew to a close nearly 40 minutes later, violinist Karen Gomyo and conductor Jakub Hrusa had conferred an air of triumph on the proceedings.
Violinist Karen Gomyo dived into Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto with an unflinching forthrightness.
Czech conductor Jakub Hrusa made his second appearance with the S.F. Symphony.