Last Saturday, the Bach Society Orchestra inaugurated its 54th concert season in Paine Hall with a stellar performance of Vaughan Williams, Paganini, and Beethoven. Guest violinist Ryu Goto ’10 captured the spotlight along with music director Aram V. Demirjian ’08, who led the orchestra with great professionalism.
The evening began with English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Overture to “The Wasps,” a popular selection from a suite written for a 1909 production of Aristophanes’s satire, “The Wasps.”
The overture began with taut strings that emanated an aura of stress. Flutes followed, shrieking. This tense introduction represented the “wasps” referenced in the title—actually overzealous Athenian jurors in Aristophanes’s text.
Although the orchestra, sounding out of tune, had gotten off to a rocky start, it finished the piece very professionally. The overture moved into a calm interlude—the flutes were no longer shrieking, but humming—and finally resolved into a rousing coda.
Following the Overture, suspense mounted as the audience waited for violinist Goto to emerge. With a bestselling debut CD in Japan, collaborations with countless orchestras and renowned musicians, and a regularly broadcast Fuji TV documentary entitled “Ryu Goto’s Odyssey,” Goto is already internationally acclaimed.
The selection of Paganini’s Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra in D Major, Op. 6 was perfect for Goto, who played this very piece at his debut concert at the age of seven. His virtuosic performance on Saturday seemed to recall a time when Paganini himself would sell out concert after concert across Europe.
A violin master himself, Niccolò Paganini constructed the concerto as a showcase of the violinist’s talent. The score already dictated that Goto would take center stage, a position he filled with relish.
Goto’s first notes were intense and pure, digging into the very heart of his Stradivari violin. The first movement, Allegro maestoso, was polished to the core. Every nuance had a purpose. Goto was even confident enough to gaze at the audience as his fingers seemingly played on their own.
In an expansive cadenza at the end of the first movement, Goto effortlessly plucked left-hand pizzicatos and knocked off double-stops as if they were child’s play. The shorter second movement, reminiscent of opera, evoked a sense of tragedy. Where Goto’s violin used to be light, melancholy began to weigh down on the instrument.
In the third movement—Allegro spirituoso—Goto leaped back into his element, holding the audience on edge with every twist of the bow.
He employed Paganini’s own invention, “ricochet” bowing (where the bow ricochets across the strings to produce swift and un-slurred notes), with the utmost effect, swimming through 20 notes in a matter of a few seconds. Then, violinist and orchestra merged together, fortissimo, to produce an epic finish.
Goto performed a surprise encore, wild and improvised. While plucking strings with his left hand, he masterfully maneuvered the bow with his right.
After Goto’s solo, the orchestra returned to center stage. Their performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Op. 93 was impressive, especially considering the small size of the orchestra and the fact that half of BachSoc is comprised of new, albeit talented, freshmen.
It was nearly impossible to follow an act as thunder-stealing as Goto’s, but the orchestra’s overall performance was fantastic. The strings and woodwinds complemented each other perfectly as the timpani pounded in the background, building suspense.
As music director of BachSoc for the second year in a row, a rare feat, Demirjian showcased his conducting talents masterfully. His presence on the platform was awe-inspiring. As his arms rose and fell in sweeping, majestic motions, it was as if the symphony itself was inside him, bursting to reach everyone in the music hall that night.
In contrast to Goto’s impassioned performance and Demirjian’s direction, the orchestra’s interpretation of Beethoven was not so enthusiastic. But it is difficult to convey the true sense of a Beethoven symphony with so small an orchestra, and BachSoc did a great job with what they had.
Ultimately, the most inspiring aspect of the evening was the opportunity to watch two musical superstars—Goto and Demirjian—at work. And given the memorability of their first performance of the year, there might well be more stars among BachSoc’s freshman class.