Author: Kelly Dean Hansen, Freelance Classical Music Writer

REVIEW: Artist Series Reaches Heights in November Classical Programs

Violinist Sarah Chang—who made her public debut in Boulder at the age of 8—returned to the Macky Auditorium stage on Friday night. Now 37, Chang’s reputation as one of the great American virtuosos is unassailable. Her duo recital with pianist Julio Elizalde on the CU Presents Artist Series continues a string of memorable events with major classical artists, including Joshua Bell and Yo-Yo Ma. Chang last appeared at Macky with the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra in 2013.

In Friday’s program, Chang played two major sonatas for violin and piano from memory. The concise and intense Sonata in D minor, a late work of Johannes Brahms, was riveting throughout, especially in the passionate finale and the short, gorgeous slow movement.

After intermission, and wearing a different gown, she and Elizalde conquered César Franck’s masterful—and notoriously difficult—Sonata in A Major. Both here and in the Brahms, Elizalde’s contribution as an equal partner cannot be underestimated. The piano part in the Franck is often downright brutal in its demands, and Elizalde negotiated the often fiendish passage work with assured confidence, always matching Chang musically and emotionally.

The extraordinarily virtuosic second movement drew a round of applause from the appreciative audience—the only time they broke the unwritten rule of not clapping between movements—but the performance of the movement was so thrilling that it almost would have been odd not to acknowledge it.

The concert opened with an appetizer, Béla Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances. In their original incarnation as a solo piano work, the dances are not particularly flashy. The arrangement for violin and piano, made by the composer’s friend Zoltán Székely, adds a dash of brilliance, with techniques such as high string harmonics. Chang executed the brief work with exuberance.

Throughout the concert, Elizalde did not use a human page turner for his music, relying instead on a tablet computer with page turns operated by foot. This actually added to the visually satisfying elegance of the performance, since Chang didn’t use sheet music at all.

A pair of encores were demanded by the audience, first an arrangement of the popular tango “Por una Cabeza” by Carlos Gardel, then a gentle rendition of J.S. Bach’s famous “Air” from his Third Orchestral Suite (with the supporting parts arranged for piano). Chang did pay tribute to her first appearance with the Boulder Philharmonic, including recognition of the orchestra’s then executive director Bill Lightfoot, who was in the audience.

Venice Baroque Orchestra explores Vivaldi’s vast output

Chang’s recital came two weeks after another marquee Artist Series event, the return of the Venice Baroque Orchestra on Nov. 2. The group made a strong impression when they visited in 2014, and their encore engagement lived up to anticipation.

The chamber orchestra specializes in the huge catalogue of its city’s most prominent composer, Antonio Vivaldi. For this program, five full Vivaldi concertos were presented, along with a pair of sinfonias. The concert highlighted recorder virtuoso Anna Fusek, who doubled as a violinist within the orchestra. Concertmaster Gianpiero Zanocco took the solo violin parts. The orchestra’s two cellists, Massimo Raccanelli and Federico Toffano, were also featured soloists.

While a couple of the composer’s more familiar concertos were included—the G minor work for two cellos and the “Goldfinch” concerto for recorder—the orchestra also played some rarer gems. The E minor violin concerto—one of the late so-called “Farewell Concertos”—and the double concerto for violin and cello in B-flat were both revelatory. The double concerto in D minor, originally for two oboes, was played in an arrangement for recorder and violin by Fusek and Zanocco.

The two sinfonias—overture-like works without soloists—opened each half. These pieces, originally designed to introduce dramatic works, are rather more obscure than the concertos. The orchestra tastefully expanded the rather brief final movements of each with extra repetitions.

The true highlight of the concert, however, was the one work not by Vivaldi. The sublime “La Follia” Concerto Grosso by Francesco Geminiani—an arrangement of a sonata by Archangelo Corelli, with whom Geminiani had studied—was given a lofty, breathtaking interpretation by the orchestra, the continuous variations on the familiar tune unfolding in an organic way.

Chamber orchestras, including baroque ensembles, are frequently featured on the Artist Series. Another baroque group, Tafelmusik, presents a concert in Macky Auditorium on March 4.

Editor’s Note: Kelly Dean Hansen is a freelance classical music writer, reviewing performances on behalf of CU Presents. Opinions expressed are his own.