By all rights, we ought to be sick and tired of Max Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1, a piece played with great frequency by violin soloists across the globe, not to mention its presence in countless recordings and in the repertoire of most advanced violin students. Certainly the composer was tired of it - the concerto's success overshadowed nearly all of his other compositions.
But more than 150 years after its highly successful premiere by Joseph Joachim in Bremen, Germany, it remains one of the greatest hits of classical music. Dutch violinist Simone Lamsma, in her premiere performances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic last weekend, offered further proof of the concerto's enduring appeal on Saturday at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
The concert began with a piece that stood in stylistic contrast to the Bruch - "Meditations on Joy," a world premiere and LA Phil commission by Helene Grime (b. 1981). An 18-minute piece written in three sections, the piece was more of a cerebral take on poems associated with joy than music that actually evoked the feeling of joy. It began with gloomy, circular string music, punctuated with bells tolling and occasional Bartok pizzicati. A brass interlude brought up the volume. Toward the end there were plunky notes that seemed to echo as if in water.
After this opening, the Bruch Concerto felt like something from another world - traditional and familiar, with musical movement echoing the rhythms of a human being - the beat of an excitable heart, the suspension of a breath, the dance of two feet.
And Lamsma, dressed in a dazzling lavender gown, commanded an arresting attention from the audience within seconds of drawing that first long, rich "G" from the 1718 "Mlynarski" Stradivarius violin she was playing. She seemed to be bursting with energy, as did the musicians of the LA Phil, led by guest conductor Otto Tausk. They played the notoriously tricky orchestral interlude in the middle of the first movement with wonderful rhythmic drive and vigor, not to mention precision.
Lamsma played with a great deal of stability and strength in her posture, projecting not only the sound of her fiddle but the character of the music, with impressive dynamic range. Arriving at the exuberant third movement, I realized, "Here is the joy!" It was downright exciting: Lamsma playing with large, decisive gestures, leaning into the orchestra as the melody traveled around to various sections. The acceleration at end of the piece felt daring and risky, like a thrill ride to the finish, after which came audible "Oh!"s from the audience, all rising to their feet in a standing ovation.
During the second half, the orchestra performed Johannes Brahms' Symphony No. 3, a piece that seems to begin at the crest of a giant wave before rippling into calmer waters. Kudos to clarinetist Boris Allakhverdyan for the beautiful playing at the beginning of the second movement. The third movement features one of Brahms' best-crafted melodies, which begins in the cellos and moves through the orchestra.
But for me, the best part of this symphony is the final movement. First, there is the part that we violinists have to play in auditions. Despite all the pressure-cooker practicing and stress that I've invested in that excerpt, I absolutely love the incredible moment when the violins have to play this long musical line that soars and leaps and bursts with rhythmic firecrackers that go off at quirky times. What a treat to hear the musicians of the LA Phil putting their full talents and energies into this stirring and beautifully crafted music.
Then after all the tumult, something really different happens toward the end of the symphony. It doesn't end "fast and loud." Instead, the waves slow down. The sun seems to rise. The dark melts away. All is peace and serenity - calm waters at last. It nearly made me cry this time.
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