On Friday, Jan. 30, in the Eastman Theatre, the Eastman Philharmonia, conducted by Neil Varon, performed a program consisting of all-Russian music. Freshmen Ying-Ju Ruby Chen was the featured soloist. She performed Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto, op. 19. The concert opened with the five-minute long “Russian Sailors’ Dance” by Reinhold Gliere. This composition can claim to be a curtain raiser and nothing more. The piece is based on endless repetitions of the main motif by different orchestral instruments, accompanied by a ceaseless ostinato in the unpitched percussion. This was supposed to sound “Russian” to the Western audience in the first half of the 20th century – however – unfortunately gives the impression of circus music rather then genuine folk music. The orchestration is anything but original, but the performance was fantastic. The orchestra played in a stunningly virtuosic fashion, making this boring composition fun to listen to. Varon was extremely successful in putting character and wit into a work as trite as Gliere’s “Sailors’ Dance.” Gliere’s piece was followed by Sergei Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto. This composition is scored for a violin solo and a chamber ensemble. Prokofiev’s concerto exhibits most of the themes in the orchestral instruments, while the role of the soloist is to hold the ensemble together through passage-like development of thematic material. The violin plays in the high register most of the time – therefore the orchestra has to keep the dynamics very soft in order not to drown the violin sound into a forceful tutti. In her performance, violinist Ying-Ju Chen exhibited exceptionally clean intonation and a very sweet tone. This made her the perfect soloist for this kind of piece. Varon and the Philharmonia did a truly wonderful job at allowing the solo line to be prominent and at acting as an equal chamber music partner to Chen. The second half of the concert constituted of Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. Well-known to everybody, this old-time favorite was wonderfully presented. The performance of the third movement deserves to be specifically mentioned. The orchestra achieved a very wide dynamic range with the pizzicati. The middle section of the movement is very difficult for the woodwind instruments, but the students made it appear easy with their prompt ensemble playing. The audience was still exhaling after holding their breath when Varon surprised everybody with an almost immediate attacka into the last movement. This was a very delightful and effective way to not let the listeners calm down before the very last chord of the piece. Varon ended his performance with a series of really artistic gestures, which were very suitable for the symphony’s Finale – an Italian-like effective closing movement with constant crash cymbals punctuating the rhythm. Thunderous applause greeted the orchestra for their marvelous achievement. The next concert which Varon will conduct will take place on Wednesday, Feb. 4 in the Eastman Theatre, when he will welcome soprano Erin Snell as the soloist of the Eastman School Symphony Orchestra. The composers presented will be Chausson, Dvorak and Verdi. Fol can be reached at email@example.com.
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