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San Luis Obispo Symphony Review of Opening Night

Posted:February, 10 2015

By James Cushing

Expectations ran as high as the unseasonably hot temperature Saturday night at the Cohan Center. It was the opening night of the 2014-15 season, and two legends were scheduled to make Central Coast debuts: Elizabeth Pitcairn, one of the world’s top-drawer violinists, and her 1720 “Red Mendelssohn” Stradivarius, the only violin ever to star in an Academy-Award winning movie. Furthermore, these two legends were giving form to a third legend, the fiendishly complex Violin Concerto of Tchaikovsky.

If the audience’s roaring ovations were anything to judge by, most expectations were met. I know mine were exceeded. Put simply, this gifted woman and her violin changed my way of hearing a major work, and that – the possibility of hearing a performance that changes one’s mind – is one of the reasons to attend live musical events in the first place.

Part of the pleasure of this concert lay in Maestro Michael Nowak’s smart programming. The whole show emphasized melody and vibrant orchestral color, playing on the strengths of the strings and giving the percussion section a workout. Tchaikovsky dominated the second half, but the opener, the overture from Verdi’s La forza del destino, set us up for Respighi’s The Pines of Rome.

Verdi’s 1869 overture is short but very “big” in its pacing, sweep and level of feeling. A 19th-century rollercoaster of passionate desire and pastoral idealism, it starts with three crashing chords and sustains a hectic, even breathless atmosphere, never touching down through its eight minutes.

The lesser-known Ottorino Respighi studied with Rimsky-Korsakov, which may account for a “Russian” feeling to music which nominally depicts Italian landscapes. As a symphonic tone-poem, The Pines of Rome (1923) also shares a resemblance with Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy and Stravinsky’s The Song of the Nightingale. These works abandon symphonic form altogether in order to evoke, in a manner similar to Impressionist painters, a subjectively structured set of visual images. In a sense, it’s film music without a film – although The Pines of Rome functions memorably as the soundtrack for the still-disturbing 1958 avant-garde mashup, A Movie by Bruce Conner – and Nowak’s years of experience in working in film scores paid off in overall pacing and coherence. First-chair trumpet Jerry Boots had a nicely liquid turn, and timpanist John Astaire spanked his drums. The birdcalls in the third section prompted intermission discussion; they were a digital recording, not a trained aviary or a bird-whistle specialist.

Elizabeth Pitcairn strode onto the stage with the kind of confidence that San Luis Obispo residents are more likely to read about than witness. Tall and poised, in a strapless emerald ombre gown that complemented the Red Mendelssohn perfectly, she commanded the auditorium and changed the way I hear Tchaikovsky.

Confession: He’s never been one of my favorite composers. His big hits like the 1812 Overture or Swan Lake have become clichés through overexposure, and the Piano Concerto has always struck me as ponderous and sentimental. But Pitcairn’s smooth articulation of the “impossibly difficult” solo passages on her nearly-human-voiced violin rebalanced the whole musical equation for me.

Every concerto is a meditation on the relations between the individual and society, but in Pitcairn’s treatment, Tchaikovsky’s violin part expressed an emotional intensity bordering on the obsessive. For the first time, I felt the music as a staging of the extraordinary complexity of the composer’s inner life as gay man in Czarist Russia. The drama took on tragic coloration. Big, brutal chords from the orchestra loomed behind the fractured fragility of the solo part, as though the man were saying “See what you’ve forced me into?”

Pitcairn’s sustained level of virtuosity strained belief. The music’s high speed never tired the mind, but the senses and the heart both reeled at the detailed emotional information singing out of her instrument.

The concert’s sponsors were Jim and Beverly Smith, and David Houston, in memory of Mary Houston; Pitcairn’s encore, the Meditation from Massenet’s Thais, was dedicated to her memory as well.