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March 27, 2009 (Review of "Brahms & Dvorak")

With Symphony Silicon Valley, violinist Ju-Young Baek goes straight to the heart of Brahms

Richard Scheinin, Mercury News
Violinist Ju-Young Baek has established a special rapport with the musicians of Symphony Silicon Valley over the past few years. Thursday, having flown in from Seoul to perform with the orchestra at the California Theatre, she seemed to ride the jet stream, straight to the heart of Brahms.

It was the first of her three performances (the others are tonight and Sunday afternoon), and it felt like a special event; in fact, it was Baek's first wedding anniversary, the audience was told before the concert.

Whatever motivated her, Baek's performance of the Violin Concerto in D major was technically and emotionally dead-on; at one point in the vast opening movement, she moved from fury to whimsy to heartbreak in the course of one long bow-stroke.

She was engaged in a true collaboration with guest conductor George Cleve, a dyed-in-the-wool Brahmsian, and an orchestra many of whose members played under Cleve with the old San Jose Symphony that understands the raging undertow of this music as well as its sublime delicacy: There were moments of chamber-like interplay in that same movement, when Baek, Cleve and the orchestra intuitively joined in a delicate dance.

Composed in 1878 for violinist Joseph Joachim, Brahms' friend and a legendary virtuoso, the concerto is an endurance test for any soloist. When he first saw the score, Joachim complained that Brahms had composed a piece "not for the violin, but against it."

That first movement, lasting over 20 minutes, is a particular test. The intervals that the soloist's left hand has to play are really big, but also consonant; in other words, they're hard to reach, and it's obvious to listeners if they're out of tune.

As the movement progresses, there is a sense of constantly spanning wide distances across the fingerboard much wider than in a lot of concertos. It can be exhausting.

Baek, if anything, grew stronger throughout this movement, which climaxed with the famous cadenza set down by Joachim for his own performances. Pyrotechnics aside, what most distinguished Baek's playing was its singing quality, with ethereal high notes purely sustained.

The second movement, the adagio, is essentially an aria, calling Mozart to mind. With each note exposed, it's a tightrope walk for the soloist, who must play delicately, warmly, humanly and, again, perfectly in tune. No problem for Baek, though she and the orchestra might have played more whisperingly to better mine the adagio's elusive mystery.

The Gypsy-inspired third movement, with its thoroughbred passages for the soloist, was a dashing conclusion. After several sets of bows, Baek offered Paganini's Caprice No. 9 as her encore: more pyrotechnics, though not so perfectly dispatched as the Brahms.

The program which Cleve conducted from memory, without a score in sight began with a sparkly performance of Berlioz's "Le carnaval romain." It concluded with a generally vivid rendition of Dvorak's "New World" Symphony.

English hornist Patricia Emerson Mitchell was a standout: Her solos were ear candy, richly melodious.

This is the second consecutive program in which the orchestra is experimenting with an "antiphonal" seating arrangement. The second violins have moved to the right, opposite the first violins, while the cellos have moved left-of-center.

The arrangement shows promise: Thursday, the strings, especially during the "New World," were luminous, layered with color.

Finally, "thank you" to cellist Roger Emanuels, an anchor of San Jose's orchestras for 29 seasons. Retiring after this weekend's performances, he deserves a huge round of applause.

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