The Sacramento Philharmonic (& Opera, as it insists on being called) opened its 2016-’17 season last Saturday with a rarely heard violin concerto and a recently performed Tchaikovsky symphony. The performances of both works were complete successes and provided a near-capacity audience at the Community Center Theater with a most satisfying and exhilarating symphonic concert.
Benjamin Britten’s first violin concerto is one of his earlier works, composed in 1939, when he was only 25 years old. It is a somber piece that evokes a sense of despair, if not depression, which was probably where Britten was emotionally at the time. He had been struggling with his homosexuality, which was proscribed by law in England at the time, and (as a staunch pacifist) was disillusioned by the Spanish Civil War and the signs of another massive war about to begin in Europe.
All of that being said, the concerto is a masterful creation, highly unusual in structure and most powerful in the emotional range it projects. And the violin soloist is put to the test throughout, but most especially in the energized second movement (marked “Vivace”), which is bookended with two far more restrained movements (“Moderato con moto” for the first and “Passacaglia” for the third).
Happily, the soloist’s work was more than adequately handled by Karen Gomyo. Now in her mid-thirties, Ms. Gomyo has established herself as a highly regarded concert violinist who also specializes in the New Tango music of Astor Piazzola. She also performs frequently as a duo with Finnish guitarist Ismo Eskelinen.
For whatever reason, Ms. Gomyo performed the Britten concerto with a printed score on a stand in front of her. It was odd to see her occasionally changing the pages on the score (mostly at the end of each movement), since she otherwise never seemed to be reading it (or even glancing at it). That distraction aside, her command of the concerto was magnificent. She handled the many nuanced parts of the first and third movements flawlessly and gave an absolutely virtuoso performance of the long cadenza in the challenging second movement. She received a strong ovation at the conclusion of the work but did not offer an encore, to the disappointment of many.
Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony is so popular that the Philharmonic’s inclusion of it on its opening concert for the year marked the second time (in the span of three weeks) that a local orchestra has made it the main work in a season-opening concert. Then, the Camellia Symphony played it well, but last weekend the Philharmonic, under the direction of guest conductor Michael Christie, played it to perfection.
Mr. Christie is not the showiest of conductors; in fact, he is quite reserved in his motions at the podium. But his interpretation of this great Tchaikovsky symphony, and the performance of it his musicians gave, was just wonderful. The first noticeable decision by Christie was the tempo he set in the first movement. Although it is marked “Allegro con anima,” Mr. Christie set a far more deliberate pace, and it made the magic of the movement’s main melody (the same melody that is heard throughout all four movements) that much more recognizable and infectious.
The second movement began with a perfectly played solo by horn player Zachary Limacher and ended on a sublime solo note (from the contrabassoon of Maryll Goldsmith) that was held to the faintest of pianissimos that faded into the silence in the great hall. It was breathtaking in its beauty.
The fourth movement was also conceived and played masterfully, with Mr. Christie returning to the slower pacing he had used in the first. The close before the coda was drawn so fully and followed by such a wonderful extended pause that the start of applause from a few in the audience could be heard. But then the musicians took up that grand coda that makes this particular symphony so popular, and, again, Mr. Christie milked it for all it was worth, extending each of the last four chords in a dramatic close that immediately brought the audience to its feet.
Mr. Christie returned to the extended standing ovation for three sets of bows, singling out many members of the orchestra for recognition before shaking the hand of concertmaster Dan Flanagan, thereby indicating a close to the concert. A hoped for encore was not to be had, but the evening was otherwise wholly satisfying, with a star turn on Britten’s rarely heard violin concerto and a nearly perfect interpretation and performance of one of the most popular works in the symphonic repertoire.