bit too expansive, but what tone: Batiashvili.
by Charles Dutoit
Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Aug. 5
At some point, a composer such as Sibelius has to ask himself,
“Am I making the violin part of this concerto purposely difficult
just so the soloist can dazzle an audience, or are all these
pyrotechnics germane to the piece?” And he thinks about it,
and answers his own question: “Oh, what the hell—it sounds
great, let’s do it.”
In truth, Jean Sibelius expended a lot of time and revision
on his Violin Concerto, which premiered in 1904 and
was withdrawn and revised immediately afterward. But it wasn’t
until the electrifying Heifetz recording of 1935 that the
piece began its swift popularity ascent—with claims of being
the most-performed violin concerto of the 20th century.
Its difficulty has made it a test piece for fiddlers, and
it’s a centerpiece of an international violin competition
held every five years in Helsinki—a competition in which Lisa
Batiashvili took second prize in 1995, when she was 16.
That was just a year after Gidon Kremer played the concerto
during an August concert at SPAC, and Batiashvili’s playing
last week reminded me very much of that experience. Like Kremer,
this young violinist has a sense of control that assures you
that she’s taking charge of the technical challenges.
But not without an understanding of the poetry of the piece.
In these days of so much virtuosic accomplishment, that may
be where the greatest challenge lies. This concerto has the
potential for great elasticity, but I prefer it in tempo as
much as possible, and thus found Batiashvili’s interpretation
somewhat on the expansive side.
Yet I marveled at her beautiful tone and clean lines, not
to mention the excellent rapport with conductor Charles Dutoit
and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Dutoit and Batiashvili partnered
in this piece only a few days earlier at Tanglewood, so they’ve
already road-tested the relationship.
The concert as a whole offered a wealth of orchestral showpieces.
The Sibelius concerto may seem like all ice after the fire
of Maurice Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso, but it still
demands a high level of skill. The brief Ravel work, which
opened the program, blooms with wave after wave of gorgeous
sound over infectious rhythms, and instantly reminded us why
it’s a privilege to have this brilliant orchestra in our midst
summer after summer.
Antonín Dvorák’s Symphony No. 9, (aka “From the New
World”), comprised the second half of the program. As well
as we may know the work, a live performance offers a more
nuanced understanding. The self- effacing Dvorák was a genius
at orchestration, and captured his native Bohemia’s strong
musical identity in every aspect of his work. Turning that
talent on the United States, which he visited in the 1890s,
he turned out a more American- sounding work than his American-born
coevals ever dared to produce—but then Dvorák wasn’t a racist
snob, and thus was freer to celebrate the music he heard while
traveling around this country.
Heard after the French-Spanish and Finnish sounds that began
the concert, it asserts its Bohemian-American personality
even more firmly, and was, as expected, nicely sculpted by
And what a treat to hear the Philadelphia forces wail with
the piece—especially the brass, who have a field day throughout.
The well-known largo, a lullaby that has been refigured for
every possible combination of instruments since it was written,
was especially well rendered, and the furiant finale
finished the evening in a blaze of orchestral fireworks.