Star-Bulletin Features

Sarah Chang reintroduces Goldmark concerto.

Chang energizes
little-known concerto

Sarah Chang: Performs with the Honolulu Symphony, 7:30 p.m. today at the Blaisdell Concert Hall. Tickets $15 to $55. Call 792-2000.

Review by Ruth O. Bingham
Special to the Star-Bulletin

Virtuoso violinist Sarah Chang has returned to Hawaii for her third appearance since 1998. Now all of 20 years of age, Chang strode on the Blaisdell Concert Hall stage with the assurance of a musician who has performed with some of the finest conductors and orchestras around the world. As always, she proved herself a wizard on the violin, weaving her spell with sparkling tone and crystalline technique.

Her vehicle Sunday was Karl Goldmark's little-known and rarely programmed Concerto No. 1 in A minor. Because of its virtuosic pyrotechnics, the concerto can be a showstopper if the soloist loves it -- and it was clear that Chang did. She played with passion, collaborating closely with Wong and infusing meaning into each phrase, from the Viennese gemütlichkeit in the second movement to the Hungarian mazurka rhythms of the third.

The Goldmark, however, is a work that needs a champion, as Wong conceded: "(Chang) is one of the rare exponents for this piece, but when an artist makes such a commitment to a work, it makes it work. A lot of conductors have not been interested in it. If you look at it note by note, you can't elevate it to the level of Beethoven or Mendelssohn."

Why conductors shy away from programming the piece was apparent: The violin dominated throughout, relegating the orchestra largely to introducing, echoing and supporting the violin. Goldmark offered some interesting musical ideas (a fugal development, lovely duets with the violas and with clarinetist Norman Foster), but the excessive figuration of his pyrotechnics was often musically empty.

It is easy to condemn programming "second-tier" works, but there is a case to be made for retaining them in the repertory.

Second-tier works sometimes offer the opportunity to showcase an instrument, as with the Goldmark. But they are also instructive, clarifying by contrast what makes some works masterworks, or providing historical curiosities that sharpen our ears and sense of style for that period or composer.

In the second half, for example, Wong presented a Tchaikovsky symphony, not the familiar Fourth, Fifth or Sixth, but the First, composed when he was only 26. Between mediocre, derivative, sometimes even goofy sections lay moments of great beauty that foreshadowed the mature composer. It was fascinating to note which traits became Tchaikovsky trademarks.

The best-crafted work on the program was the opening "Russian Easter" Overture by Rimsky-Korsakov, with its modal flavor, wide "Russian" scoring and kaleidoscopic orchestration.

Like the Tchaikovsky, the Rimsky-Korsakov featured the orchestra as an ensemble of soloists. Of special note were a wonderful solo by French hornist Ken Friedenberg, a second trombone solo by Eric Mathis in the Rimsky-Korsakov and, in both, several stunning brass choir passages by the trumpets, the horns and especially the trombones and tuba.

Masterworks provide the foundation of Western classical tradition, but it would be a shame to focus so exclusively on them as to miss hearing intriguing and beautiful passages such as those offered in the Goldmark or Tchaikovsky's First.

Ruth O. Bingham is a free-lance writer who has
a Ph.D. in musicology from Cornell University.

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