Often a symphony orchestra concert will feature a great soloist playing a great concerto. For even the best orchestras, such a performance can elevate the concert, often making it memorable far beyond the other selections that fill the program on that particular evening.
On a smaller scale, the season-opening concert (entitled, “Passionate and Brilliant”) for the Camellia Symphony’s fifty-fourth season last weekend (at the Sacramento City College Performing Arts Center) offered such an experience. Under the direction of music director and conductor Christian Baldini (now in his fifth season in the position), the symphony played the Violin Concerto in D minor by Jean Sibelius, which provided the star of the evening, nineteen year old Alina Kobialka, the opportunity to shine.
And shine she did in more than holding her own throughout the most difficult passages of this most challenging of pieces for the violin. We expected a stellar performance, as this young star had already established her bona fides two-and-a-half years earlier when she debuted with the Camellia and performed Prokofiev’s challenging first violin concerto. On that evening she had also offered an encore (a Chinese composition entitled “Ambush from All Sides”) that was breath-taking.
The Sibelius concerto is unique for several reasons, the principal one being the extended first movement in which the soloist introduces major themes in a series of relatively short, but exceedingly difficult, cadenzas. That movement is something of an endurance contest for the soloist, who is given few breathers in its 20-plus minutes. Ms. Kobialka played it exquisitely and received a burst of applause at its conclusion that was so long that a young woman (apparently assuming the concerto was over) momentarily appeared on the stage with a bouquet for the soloist. Quickly realizing her error, she beat a hasty retreat (returning at the end of the performance to hand the performer the roses).
The rest of the concerto is only slightly less demanding of the soloist, as many themes are carried by the full orchestra in the second and third movements. Still, the soloist is given any number of sections in each in which she must display virtuosic skill. Ms. Kobialka, performing without a score, showed that she is fully possessed of that level of skill, and while she may not yet have found her full appreciation of the way certain phrases can be attacked (several were heavier than we might have preferred), she gave ample evidence of her talents and of the career heights she will soon attain.
It was a treat to hear the Sibelius concerto played so well. The other main piece on the program didn’t quite reach that level of excellence. Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony (in E minor) is a grand work that is much cherished in the orchestral repertoire. It is unique in the repetition of the same theme (in varied moods and textures) in all four movements. And it makes major demands on all of the orchestra’s players in moving the theme from section to section in the succeeding movements.
On this night, we heard more than a few instances of slightly off-pitch playing in the strings at critical moments. Now, to be sure, this orchestra has reached lofty heights of excellence for a semi-professional symphony. Maestro Baldini is a fine conductor, and he is to be commended for programming challenging works (including Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony and Stravinsky’s “Petrushka” later this season). But he can’t always rely on his non-professional players to be up to the task, and there were definitely moments during the Tchaikovsky when that limitation was evident.
Still, the work is so wondrous, and the overall playing of it was certainly strong enough, that it received a well-deserved standing ovation at its end. It just left us longing, ever so slightly, for the kind of performance of it that a top-flight professional orchestra can provide.
The concert began with John Adams’s “Short Ride in a Fast Machine,” which features prominent use of a wood block in three of its four sections. Otherwise, the work is a curiosity, more rhythmic than musical, less exhilarating than intriguing.
Three more concerts are scheduled for the Camellia’s season. They are “Holiday Celebration” (December 17) featuring Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony; “Spiritual Joy” (February 4), when the Shostakovich Fifth will be played; and “Puppets and Divas” (April 29) with Stravinsky’s “Petrushka” heading the program. Tickets and information for any of these concerts are available by phone (916-929-6655) or online (www.camelliasymphony.org).