Review: For Minnesota Orchestra, a night like at the opera

Jennifer Koh
St. Paul Pioneer Press

Opera without words. That's what I felt I experienced at Friday evening's Minnesota Orchestra concert. Each of the three works performed at Minneapolis' Orchestra Hall was suffused with drama, each performance full of flair and flamboyance, conflicts roiling and resolving.

But that's what you get when you have a conductor on the podium who has worked in the pits of many of the world's great opera houses. Slovakia's Juraj Valcuha may have been making his Minnesota Orchestra debut, but he and the musicians seemed to forge a bond quickly, concurring on their desire to make the program a showcase for big, powerful sounds that swell with emotion and excitement. And exciting it was.

But the name on the lips of most patrons as they stepped out into the rainy night Friday was surely that of violinist Jennifer Koh. The freshly minted winner of Musical America's "Instrumentalist of the Year" was the soloist for Polish composer Karol Szymanowski's First Violin Concerto.

Composed in 1916, it's a landmark of modernism, and Koh demonstrated that she is as adept at creating drama as Valcuha. From her opening emergence from the hum of the orchestra, her tone rang out high and beautiful, a trait that held true throughout the many musical twists thrown at her by the work's flowing wordless stories.
It's a piece with a lot of uncertainty and a fair amount of anxiety bubbling beneath, but Koh gave it an extraordinarily confident interpretation. Its shifting moods were negotiated brilliantly, her cries of defiance above the ensemble assertive and searing. The climax was a cadenza that began with tense tones, eerie and haunted, but built into a flurry of aggressively bowed double stops. And Koh is an engagingly demonstrative player who pours plenty of physicality into her performances.

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