During his lifetime, German composer Max Bruch was always thought to be just on the verge of greatness. That greatness, however, never quite materialized for Bruch, despite the admiration he enjoyed from audiences and his peers for his gifts of quintessential Romantic melody and orchestration. With the shifting sands of musical taste, his works have mostly drifted away from concert halls, with the exception of his Kol Nidrei for cello and orchestra and the work that was offered by the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra last weekend—the very popular Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor. Appearing as soloist in the Bruch with Maestro Lucas Richman and the KSO was the 24-year old violinist Augustin Hadelich.
Hadelich's career leapt forward with a gold medal at the 2006 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, which provided, among several substantial benefits, a four-year loan of the 1683 ex-Gingold Stradivarius. As one would hope of a violinist of such caliber, Hadelich remained firmly in control of the instrument, achieving a golden luminous tone and extremely accurate intonation—an artistry that was equal parts violin and violinist. My fear had been that Hadelich, like other notable violinists have done in performing the concerto, would attempt to wring every last drop of Romantic lushness out of the work by filling it with vibrato and enormous dynamic shifts. Instead, avoiding excessive Romanticism, he showed the audience an intelligent maturity, combining a sparkling technical mastery with the subtle ability to communicate in phrasings that seem to reveal the natural essence of each line.
One of the oddly satisfying features of the concerto is the sense of continuity and structure brought about by Bruch's musical linking of the three movements. The end of the first movement, Allegro moderato, gradually slows and softens, providing a gorgeous bridge for Hadelich's violin to begin the Adagio movement. As the second movement ends with the violin dying away to nothingness, the orchestra begins its driving introduction to the finale: Allegro energico culminating in the perfect set-up for Hadelich's violin entrance with the familiar theme, an energetic gypsy dance.
Richman opened the concert with Giacomo Puccini's Preludio sinfonico in A Major, a piece that was written as an examination exercise while Puccini was still a student at the Milan Conservatory in 1882. It is often quite revealing to listen to the non-operatic works of composers known mostly for opera, and this one was no exception. One could hear intriguing glimpses of Puccini's future work to come in a phrase here and there and in bits of orchestral color. I managed to catch a hint of Suor Angelica and Madama Butterfly, among others, in this very entertaining and satisfying work.
It is a fact that Ludwig van Beethoven had no greater admirer in the 19th century than composer Richard Wagner. Therefore, I can give full credence to the rumor that Wagner owned a parrot that incessantly whistled themes from Beethoven's symphonies. For after the second half of the evening's program, I found myself humming the themes from the Beethoven Symphony No. 7 in A Major, a work Wagner had called, in an often-quoted line, "an Apotheosis of Dance."
The first movement has, in fact, a very dancing, bird-song-like quality: incessantly repeating notes, sudden chirps and crashes, with calls and descriptive retorts between the woodwinds, before the main theme is introduced by principal flutist Nadine Hur. The second movement turned to darker tones, still dance-like, but this time a somber funeral march with a lyrical, elegiac sadness carried by the strings. Richman kept the conversation-like counterpoint alive with just enough dynamic control. The third movement, Presto, is a brilliantly constructed dance, interrupted twice by a lumbering chorale led by woodwinds and the horns. When the chorale tries to interrupt the dance a third time, Beethoven brilliantly, and deftly, ends the movement with a quick burst of finality, not unlike the curtain-dropper of a comic opera. In the fourth movement, Beethoven achieved the ultimate in what can only be described as a wild whirlwind of dance movement that builds and builds in dizzying intensity until the end. Richman understood that it is the contrasts of dynamics under control that give this movement, and this work, its drama and its life.