Donald Rosenberg | Guest Reviewer
It would have been easy for the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra to have presented a meat-and-potatoes program Thursday at the Amphitheater. But with violinist Augustin Hadelich engaged for the evening, something much more enticing was in store.
The concert, conducted by Mei-Ann Chen, included a classical concerto (Haydn’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in C major) and a favorite symphony (Mendelssohn’s “Italian”).
Now for the daring part: Between these cherishable items came another violin concerto, Thomas Adès’ “Concentric Paths,” to propel ears wide open. It is a testament to Hadelich’s musical and intellectual gifts that he triumphed in both of his assignments.
Adès wrote his concerto on a joint commission from the Berliner Festspiele and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2005. It is a score that reflects the British composer’s multifaceted creative profile and distinctive sound world. The music is a cascade of divergent moods and colors, full of quirky extremes and excursions into ethereal, mysterious and rollicking territory.
“Concentric Paths” takes its name from the circling of materials that pervades the three movements: “Rings,” “Paths” and “Rounds.” Adès constantly places soloist and orchestra in swirling counterpoint, as if they are objects floating in space. Much of the orchestral activity is dark and even menacing, with lumbering low brass and harsh ensemble exclamations surrounding the violin’s pensive and dramatic flights.
Perpetual motion sets off the first movement, “Rings,” which finds the violin playing in its highest register amid the orchestra’s brooding and fluttering figures. There are moments of stillness, as if the universe is taking a big breath.
The heart of the concerto is “Paths,” an extended journey that has whiffs of a Baroque chaconne catapulted into the 21st century. Adès adds layer upon layer of contrasting and interconnecting gestures, placing the violin in tranquil, quizzical and fervent worlds as the orchestra applies various shades of light and dark.
Rhythms percolate in the finale, “Rounds,” with the violin finding joyful release in big leaps, only to step back to sing yearning phrases as the orchestra winds its way ominously around the soloist. But the violin isn’t concerned by the whirling tremors — and takes off gleefully into the heavens as the music comes to a sudden end.
Adès’ score is a complex web of ideas that needs detailed consideration. It’s hardly the ideal vehicle for the short rehearsal period that is the reality where summertime music-making is concerned. But Chen, music director of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, was fiercely alert to the quicksilver changes in texture and meter, and the Chautauqua musicians responded with playing marked by bold and subtle attack, keen balances and vibrant colors.
Hadelich, playing the 1723 “Ex-Kiesewetter” Stradivarius, managed the solo part with equal degrees of eloquence and urgency. He brought exceptional flair and clarity to the most challenging passages, as if they were child’s play, and applied gleaming finesse to Adès’ lyrical sighs. The audience greeted the performance with a storm of approval, which prompted Hadelich to offer a quietly beautiful encore: the Sarabande from Bach’s Partita No. 2.
As if the demands of the Adès weren’t enough for one evening, Hadelich opened the program with a glistening account of the Haydn concerto, which was written 240 or so years before its 21st-century counterpart. The violinist had no difficulty switching stylistic gears. Masterful in the modernist invention of “Concentric Paths,” Hadelich also reveled in the cheerful and poetic delights of the Haydn concerto.
In true classical fashion, Hadelich played along with the string orchestra during introductions and transitions. The solo lines of the first and third movements couldn’t have sounded more sprightly. Hadelich’s own cadenzas were tasteful flights of fancy.
It was in the slow movement that the performance became a summer night’s dream. Hadelich sustained the songful lines above pizzicato strings with silvery delicacy, adding subtle nuances for expressive warmth. Chen kept the strings to a hush. In the boisterous material, conductor and orchestra gave sonorous support to their inspired guest, who made his U.S. debut on this stage in 2001.
Hadelich, 27, was born to German parents in Italy, which probably had nothing to do with the programmming of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 on this occasion. But is it possible for this symphony — with its sunny Italianate vistas, wistful poetry and intoxicating dances — not to weave its spell?
Chen set off the first movement with muscular alacrity, thrusting the music along as if it held the happiest sounds on earth. (Any argument?) There were moments when more dynamic contrast and elasticity would have enhanced shapeliness, but the high spirits were infectious.
The cellos and basses provided the firmest foundation for the haunting theme in the second movement, and the trio in the third movement was graced by luminous wind playing. But the night’s second jolt — after the Adès — came in the Saltarello that ends the symphony. Chen and the orchestra dashed through the movement, the flutes serving as wizardly dancers and the rest of the ensemble savoring the exhilarating activity.
Chen seemed to have the time of her life (at least on this day). She zipped through the orchestra, shaking hands and giving every section a solo bow. The musicians’ smiles were enormous. And let’s not forget Mendelssohn, who deserves much of the credit for sending everyone blissfully home.
Donald Rosenberg writes about music for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland. He is the author of The Cleveland Orchestra Story: “Second to None” and president of the Music Critics Association of North America.