Tight-Lipped Optimism: Master Sinfonia Season Finale

Alex Zhou

A devoted few celebrated Mother’s Day with the music of Sibelius and Brahms, just two composers whom conductor David Ramanadoff chose to conclude the 2016-17 season of Master Sinfonia. The Sunday, May 14 concert at Los Altos Methodist Church featured gifted young violinist Alex Zhou in the Sibelius Violin Concerto, while the one work that occupied the second half, the Brahms D Major Symphony, added a bit of sunshine to an otherwise grudging, sometimes sullen exhibition of epic power. If the Sibelius Concerto expresses a Northern grandeur, the Brahms symphony mixes a pastoral sensibility with thunderheads, what the composer called “the black wings of my personal melancholy.”

The 1905 Sibelius Violin Concerto stands as the Finnish composer’s only exercise in the concerto form, and he eschews the kind of voluptuous bravura that marks the more familiar concertos by Mendelssohn, Mozart, and Paganini. While the first movement contains a cadenza for the solo instrument, it serves a functional role as part of the exposition-development, and the solo rarely engages in anything like intertwined dialogue with the orchestra. While some element of folk music may intrude into the last movement polonaise, the first movement possesses a stolid, Dorian ethos that suggests to many the rigors of Northern climes. The violin must execute difficult passages that include high harmonics, registration shifts, double stops and wicked trills. What the solo part demands, moreover, comes by way of an aristocratic stamina, given the often ardent and somber cast of the piece. Our soloist this afternoon, Alex Zhou, aged fifteen, had been Winner of the First Master Sinfonia Concerto Competition, as so he and his elegant Pressenda instrument made an indelible appearance in this solemn work, perhaps for some a reminiscence of another youngster of three generations ago who flourished in this selection, Guila Bustabo.

Ramanadoff’s tempos for the Sibelius appeared somewhat marcato and deliberate to my taste, but the interchange induced a sense of lyric menace, if that emotional paradox suffices. Sibelius thought watching a solo player stand in wait inane, so his violinist enters immediately with hovering strings, and the low winds, cellos, and basses often supply a sinewy, muscular context for the composer’s dark vision. Most of Zhou’s melodic contours derive from his instrument’s G string. If the first movement cast a meditative, long shadow, the Adagio di molto – the heart of the concerto – had an especial, ruminative mystery. Pair of clarinets, oboe, and flute duets, aided by an active tympani (Len Sperry) set the delayed tone in B-flat for what became a passionate, almost suspended meditation. The last movement has suffered Donald Tovey’s characterization as “a dance for polar bears,” but the running passages and the solo’s brilliant work in thirds belies that ponderous analogy. Zhou’s flute tone, moreover, soared above the earth-bound rhythms with an inspired and aerial demeanor. We felt that an emergent and stellar personality had made his indelible impression upon with a work of passion and poise.

The 1877 Brahms Second Symphony in D Major comes as the work of a master of color and control in sonata-form felt the confidence of having shed the tyranny of former symphonists – mainly Beethoven – from his artistic conscience. For the most part, the disposition of the work remains sunny and bucolic, with its penchant for the French horn (John Burton) as a purveyor of woodland thoughts and consolations. Given Ramanadoff’s liking for the first movement repeat, the music gained a largesse that transcends its usual parameters. Ramanadoff in his instructive introduction mentioned the use of low winds, tympani, and trombones (Georges Goetz, Brandon Eberly, and Barry Roland) and the tympani that apply a dark hue into otherwise illumined proceedings, those intimations of mortality that so often define the Brahms ethos. Still, the gorgeous cello line from Master Sinfonia took this auditor back to those “glory days” when Bruno Walter had first illuminated this ardent music, which often applies subtle rhythmic flexions (hemiola) to introduce a note of uncertainty in an otherwise pastoral universe.

The height of the music occurred in two movements, the B Major Adagio non troppo and the brilliant D Major finale, Allegro ma non tanto. These two movements, respectively, belied the famous Hugo Wolf critique that “Brahms cannot exult.” True, Brahms curtails or restricts his ardors with a sense of classical restraint, but the passion erupts literally in spite of himself. Ramanadoff had surmised that Brahms, relieved at having in the First Symphony proved himself “worthy,” meant to express a sense of levitation and joy in Nature in the Second Symphony. And if the Allegretto movement delivered a buoyant optimism, the last, despite its moments of melancholy, achieved an epic energy and confirmation of a fully-formed musical personality.


Archived in these categories: Concerto, Orchestral, Romantic Era, Violin.
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