Bringing down the house

Minnesota Sinfonia / Jay Fishman
Brandon Duffy, violin
Evelyn Nelson, soprano

December 2, 2011
Founders Hall Auditorium
Metropolitan State University
Saint Paul, Minnesota

It seems amazing to this writer that despite the holiday-flavored selections and the short (one hour, twenty minutes) duration, there was enough time on Friday evening for the real attractions, delivered by two soloists, one young composer, and by the Sinfonia themselves.

After whetting the audience’s appetite with a Johann Strauss Jr. waltz, the orchestra and Fishman got down to serious business.  Fishman first explained to his audience how Johannes Brahms had spoken unkindly about Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. 26.  The delicious irony is that without question, this is now among the most popular concerti in the violin repertoire — arguably more popular than Brahms’s own.

The soloist here was 13-year-old violinist Brandon Duffy, who won the junior division of the Sinfonia’s concerto competition earlier this year.  Duffy handled the Bruch with finesse and taut playing, especially with solid intonation on the more difficult double- and triple-stops.  Young Mr. Duffy clearly possesses the technique necessary to tackle much of this repertoire, as well as a strong hint of the bowing technique and dynamics required to really deliver the Bruch.  It will be interesting to hear Duffy in the coming years, as he develops the maturity and “emotional knowledge” necessary to deliver the angst and passion this violin concerto demands, as well as the rich flavor of things like Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, Op. 46.  But Duffy showed us Friday evening that he has it within himself to deliver the goods — this was a fine performance with no qualifications.

A composition by 18-year-old Max Shin was next on the menu.  Chicago! is a jazzy number containing a throwback swing style with some enjoyably lush orchestration, delivered with rather full effect by the Sinfonia despite their relatively small size (25).  The slight dissonances Shin worked into the music also work very charmingly into the bustling but swiftly moving rhythms, which echo George Gershwin’s An American In Paris in places.

And in an intelligent piece of programming, Fishman followed with another genuinely fun and interesting excursion, a Divertimento by the late Canadian composer Srul Irving Glick.  While a great deal of Jewish-flavored classical and orchestral music can be serious and solemn, Fishman knows the most joyful and accessible gems as well — The Glick Divertimento brings forth some rather tricky rhythmic passages that make tough rhythmic and musical demands on the celli and double bass in particular.  But Fishman and the Sinfonia consistently shine with Judaic chamber music; the Divertimento is one of the two best that I have heard in concert.  The other is Fishman’s own Jewish Sketches, which he and the Sinfonia debuted earlier this year on February 11.  In this musician-writer’s opinion, Fishman and the Sinfonia are so good and so comfortable with this music that the time seems right for them to commit these works to compact disc; hopefully the funding and logistics for such a recording project will happen sooner rather than later.

Fishman then followed this gem with another, two movements from the Symphony in E-flat, Op.14 No. 2 by Carl Abel (1723-1787).  This gorgeous music elegantly straddles the lines between late Baroque, early classical, and even the early Romantic era.  In terms of symphonic chamber music, one could say that Carl Abel was Franz Schubert (1797-1828) before Franz Schubert was Franz Schubert.  If Fishman and the Sinfonia manage to get that recording date, they would be foolish to not include this somewhat obscure treasure on the resulting CD.

Since this was advertised as a “holiday favorites” concerto, the Sinfonia then inserted a nice reading of Adeste Fideles (the music for the hymn O Come, All Ye Faithful), which was composed by John Francis Wade (1711-1786).

After that interjection followed the Abel symphony, the orchestra scored again with Johannes Brahms’ lovely Intermezzo, Op. 118 no. 2.  It is one thing that Fishman has a deep understanding of the graceful movement of this composition; it is another that he pulls this out of his talented musicians with such panache, particularly from the violins and horns in this case.

To this point, the Sinfonia would have already garnered a nice review from this musician-writer, but the pièce de résistance was yet to come.  Minnesota-born soprano Evelyn Nelson delivered a bright, clear, and refreshingly non-weighty reading of “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s opera Gianni Schicchi.  Nelson gave us a lovely and touching performance with spot-on intonation.  She has rather amazing control of her voice; her mezzo-piano to forte high A-flat was flat-out impressive and lovely, without being excessively showy.  At this point, we knew that she is an excellent soprano.

But it was Nelson’s second selection that brought down the house; her voice and stage presence radiated during her enthusiastic reading of the “Je veux vivre” from Roméo et Juliette, the Charles Gounod opera.  Nelson’s dynamics in the closing section were *extremely* impressive and reached the audience with a palpable kinetic energy.  I am still shaking my head over Nelson’s magnificent performance, which was even better those of other sopranos I have heard perform with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.

Nelson delivered again with Adele’s Laughing Song from Die Fledermaus, and here is where the Sinfonia again demonstrated one of their niches:  This orchestra and conductor really are complementary to their soloists; the violins in particular matched Nelson stride-for-stride with nearly perfect pacing, while hanging back just enough that they did not sonically overwhelm her.  Nelson probably should have performed the Strauss before blowing us away with the Gounod, but at least she received her well-deserved standing ovation at this point.

A number of works were listed as possible selections this night, I would have loved to hear Nelson sing Mozart’s Exsultate, jubilate, K. 165, but alas, this was a holiday concert, so Nelson and the Sinfonia gave us a nice but otherwise unremarkable O Holy Night (Cantique de Noël) by Adolphe Adam instead.  (At least they lived up to the advertising!)  Fishman and the Sinfonia finished the concert with two more Christmastime selections,Victor Herbert’s “March of the Toys” from Babes in Toyland and the “Trepak” from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker.

Violinist Brandon Duffy and composer Max Shin (through Chicago!) gave fine accounts of themselves this evening.  But Evelyn Nelson is another one of those far-above-average and truly excellent soloists that I want to see and hear again soon.  If/when she next performs with the Sinfonia, they at least owe us what I am sure will be a lovely Mozart Exsultate, jubilate.  Evelyn Nelson is a star.  And in this writer’s opinion, far too few Minnesotans are aware of this chamber orchestra and *especially* how thoughtfully and intelligently Jay Fishman programs a concert.  Also head-shaking is the level of talented guest performers Fishman brings in for these concerts; we have had truly memorable recent concerts from pianist Lydia Artymiw, cellist Dmitry Kouzov, and now Evelyn Nelson.  The Minnesota Sinfonia are, unquestionably, a 501(C)(3) non-profit organization worth serious financial support.


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