Undergraduate soloist shines in Alban Berg Violin Concerto
February 18, 2011
The Indiana University Philharmonic deserves recognition for having played so resplendently in the Musical Arts Center on Wednesday night under visiting conductor Steven Smith, but when an undergraduate tackles the Alban Berg Violin Concerto and makes it her own, as she did on the same program, then top attention must go to that achievement.
Young Sarah Saviet, winner of the Jacobs School’s Concerto Competition and a student of Jorja Fleezanis, undertook the daunting assignment and most definitely came out a winner. Her performance proved that not only had she mastered the technical problems posed by the work’s blend of 12-tone modernism and melodic tradition, but she had captured its spirit.
Though specifically commissioned by the American violinist Louis Krasner, who would give it its world premiere in 1936, the concerto was written while Berg grieved over the death from polio of 18-year-old Manon Gropius, daughter of Gustav Mahler’s widow Alma and the architect Walter Gropius. Berg dedicated it “To the Memory of an Angel.” The music weaves between lyrical sadness and savage anger, and those contrasting moods were made evident in Saviet’s savvy and persuasive performance.
In the first of two movements, the score shifts from quiet to intense both in speed and volume. The second movement reverses that trend, but more dramatically; it begins in shocking crescendo, then slowly, inexorably reverts to calm, even quoting a Bach chorale as a poignant serenity increasingly permeates both the violin line and that of the orchestra. Saviet seemed fully attuned to her responsibilities, handling the astringent and the sublime with aplomb. As for Wednesday’s orchestra, the Philharmonic, thanks to Maestro Smith, served as convincing partner in providing the interpretive symmetry Berg sought. Saviet’s accomplishments were remarkable; the orchestra’s, estimable.
Of course, Smith and ensemble had more to do, handling two other works that, like the Berg, deal thematically or atmospherically with matters of life, death and the hereafter. They opened the program with a performance of the Prelude to Wagner’s opera “Lohengrin,” one that supported the composer’s instructional description for the piece: “Out of the clear blue ether of the sky, there gradually emerges an angel host bearing the sacred Grail. As it approaches Earth, it pours out exquisite odors, like streams of gold,” and so forth. The Prelude’s music moves from shimmers to majestic climax. Smith drew that transcendent feel from his players.
The visiting conductor is music director of the Richmond Symphony and holds impressive credentials working with young musicians in Cleveland and the Oberlin Conservatory. He obviously knew how to get the most out of the talents in the Philharmonic. And that he did as well in the concert closer, the Richard Strauss tone poem “Tod und Verklarung” (“Death and Transfiguration”), meant, as the composer told a friend, to describe the “last hours of a man who had striven for the highest ideals, an artist.”
Here is lush music, sometimes deliriously so. Wednesday’s reading matched intent. It was broadly and dramatically and beautifully realized.