Performance shows
beauty in serenity

'Brahms, Beethoven & Berlioz'

Pianist Jane Coop with the Honolulu Symphony.
Repeats 4 p.m. today at Blaisdell Concert Hall.
Tickets $16, $28, $33, $44 and $59. Call 792-2000.

In this frenetic age of overstimulation, it is good to be reminded that some of life's pleasures are calm rather than intense. Friday's concert of the Honolulu Symphony featured a group of works that were subdued rather than splashy and two soloists who were self-effacing rather than egotistical.

The concert opened with an unprogrammed surprise. Each year, the symphony auctions an opportunity for an audience member to conduct the orchestra in one work. This year's winner was Lynne Johnson, who led the Andante movement of Haydn's "Surprise" Symphony with obvious delight.

Since their beginnings over a century ago, American symphony orchestras have never been able to subsist on ticket sales alone, making them dependent on the generosity of donors. Those of us who love orchestral music can be grateful that there is a small group of loyal patrons in Honolulu whose contributions make it possible for the rest of us to enjoy this music year after year.

Samuel Wong next led the orchestra in a carefully modulated reading of Brahms' "Haydn Variations," a 19th-century work based on an 18th-century theme. Brahms was a Classic composer trapped in the Romantic Era, and this work reflects his admiration for the balance and clarity of an earlier age.

Beethoven's "Concerto No. 1," with piano soloist Jane Coop, is an early work that bears little resemblance to the heaven-storming works of his middle period. Despite some disagreements over tempo, the soloist and orchestra brought it to a successful conclusion.

The second half of the concert consisted of Berlioz's "Harold in Italy," with principal violist Mark Butin as soloist. The famous violin virtuoso Nicolò Paganini, who wanted to show off his Stradivarius viola, commissioned this work from Berlioz. When he saw the score, however, he refused to play it, claiming that the solo part was not sufficiently brilliant. The solo line is often overwhelmed by the orchestra, and the violist has such a long rest in the final movement that on Friday night, Butin sat down for seven minutes while the orchestra played on.

There are more jokes about violas than any other instrument, most of them revolving around violists' propensity to be unobtrusive. The tone of the viola is much softer and less piercing than its cousin the violin, and violists are generally relegated to playing inner harmony parts.

But when the viola is heard, its tone is hauntingly beautiful. Butin played the delicate pianissimo sections unbelievably softly, forcing the audience to strain even to hear him. While he clearly enjoyed the performance, he never exhibited the pizzazz that is the norm for a violinist.

His restrained rendition won the approval of the audience and his fellow players, eliciting an enthusiastic ovation.

E. Douglas Bomberger is a professor of music at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.


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