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November 18, 2012

By McLaren Harris

Two poles-apart moods of Pyotr Illich Tchaikovsky divided up the Orchestra of Indian Hill’s concert Saturday evening, Nov. 17, conducted by Artistic Director Bruce Hangen at the Littleton High School Performing Arts Center – bright and tuneful in the Violin Concerto in D, predominantly somber and despairing in the Symphony No. 6, the “Pathétique.”  But there was no mistaking the unanimity and near-jubilation of the ovation that followed Ryu Goto’s solo performance in the concerto, which concluded the program.

The Concerto is consistently positive and upbeat with many singable melodies and instrumental bravura in the outer movements and a lushly romantic Andante.  At its introduction, critics were disappointed and considered it a bit shallow because it didn’t match the seriousness and drama of the Beethoven and Brahms concerti.  Not until after Tchaikovsky’s death did it gain audience favor, but now it is among the most popular and admired works for the violin.

The combination of rich lyricism and technical challenge might pose difficulties for a lesser soloist, but after hearing Ryu Goto dash off some Paganini variations on an aria by Giovanni Paisiello during the concert prelude, we were certain he wouldn’t miss a note – and he didn’t.  His fingers danced over the fingerboard with unerring accuracy and his bowing coordination was flawless.  He set a lightning tempo for the finale and dared the orchestra to match it, which the Indian Hill musicians without hesitation.  This performance was more than bravura – it was truly vivacissimo, and the audience loved every measure.  A complete rendition of the same Paganini variations that Goto offered as an encore was as delicious as frosting and whipped cream.

Goto’s violin, a 1715 Stradivarius known in violin circles as the “Ex-Pierre Rode” and the “Duke of Cambridge,” shared the spotlight.  What a marvel of art and craftsmanship it is – fulsome-toned and responsive with hall-filling sound in all registers.  Even the high harmonics were stable and pinpoint (no small credit to the violinist).  The violin is on permanent loan to Goto by the Japanese non-profit “Yellow Angel” – and there it should stay, each a perfect complement to the other.

Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony in B minor is from an opposite mold, beginning and ending in the low strings and bassoons, moody and forlorn in the first movement and increasingly tragic in the finale, with some musical escapism in between.  Recognizable themes include the second from the opening movement, used in a number of films and programs including the 1940s radio soap opera, “Road of Life.”  The second movement is a release from the first with a lilting, sort of truncated waltz in 5/4.  The third is a total denial of doom with martial bombast and a thundering climax, but it is immediately followed by a monumental sigh of despair that recurs again and again.

Many are tempted to connect its premiere with Tchaikovsky’s death from cholera just over a week later, but carelessness in drinking unboiled water is the more likely reason.  Conductor Bruce Hangen and the orchestra were not put off in the slightest by the dark moods, attacking each passage with intensity and purpose, sailing gracefully through the “waltz,” building a cataclysm of ringing brass, agile woodwinds vigorous string-playing and powerful percussion in the strict-rhythm marching Allegro, then giving full voice to the agonizing lament of the finale in its final descent toward extinction.  This was no small feat for the orchestra to negotiate such stretches of dynamics and textures, here delicate, there raging.  The players rose to each moment, leaving little wanting.

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