A violinist true to the many ways of Prokofiev

Jennifer Koh
Incident Light

By Mike Greenberg

It is good to have beauty and technique in abundance. It is better to have beauty and technique in abundance, and to know when to set them aside. 

There was much in violinist Jennifer Koh’s account of Serge Prokofiev’s Concerto in G Minor, Oct. 9 with the San Antonio Symphony, that was beautiful and technically refined. But what made this performance compelling was Koh’s willingness to let the music be raw and visceral, even savage, when that is what it wanted to be.

The Prokofiev concerto was the centerpiece of widely varied program conducted by Alondra de la Parra, returning as a guest (and a candidate for music director) after her 2008 début. The Majestic Theater concert opened with two fairly short works, Clarise Assad’s witty “Brazilian Fanfare” and Claude Debussy’s erotic “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.” The finale was Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7.

Prokofiev’s music is full of opposites. In his lyrical mode he could write a memorable tune, like the broad solo violin melody that wafts above plucked orchestral strings in the andante of this concerto. But he was also a Modernist with a penchant for dissonant harmonies and driving, motoric figures. And at bottom he was a classicist.

Koh did full justice to all of these modes. Rather like cellist Alisa Weilerstein, who appeared with this orchestra a few weeks ago, Koh did not make a fetish of warm, sweet, generically beautiful tone. She projected a huge, richly grained sound whose color was shifting constantly to suit the musical context. She spun a poised, direct singing line in the andante, but in the outer allegros, and especially the fiery Spanish-infected finale, she could spit out phrases with moxie. At all times, her playing was true to the character of the music. She never seemed focused on self-display.

Her encore, played with fluid grace, was the allemanda, the opening movement from J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor -- the one that closes with the famous Chaconne. Maybe she can return one day to play that.

De la Parra made a very strong impression in the Beethoven symphony. There were no startling new insights (that’s probably a good thing), but each of its movements came off as a unified, masterfully sustained dramatic arc with a clear sense of direction. The allegretto was taken a tad slow, but with a light step and lively pulse. The closing allegro flew swiftly and attained a superabundance of joy. Dynamic were finely controlled throughout.

De la Parra altered the seating chart for the Beethoven, placing the double basses in a line across the rear, behind the winds, and moving the horns and trumpets to her right, behind the cellos and violas. The result, to my ear, was a period-appropriate blend of brass and strings.

The orchestra was in top form for the Beethoven -- really, for most of the evening -- and shared with de la Parra an unusually enthusiastic ovation from the audience.

Assad’s piece was a delight, a smorgasbord of Brazilian styles with a dash of jazz, a dollop of sauciness and a meringue of urban suavity. The playing seemed tentative at times, but the bolder strokes came off well.

Principal flutist Tal Perkes brought considerable freedom and lovely tone to his extensive solo turn representing the unsuccessfully libidinous title character in Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.” De la Parra’s rhythmic pulse was a tad stilted, I thought, but she got a gorgeous sound from the strings, and her balances and dynamics were spot on. There was fine solo work from principal oboe Mark Ackerman, clarinetist Stephanie Key and the horns.