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HRO is like a box of choc--well, okay, maybe more like a bag of M&Ms. You never know what you're going to get with the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra's impressively diverse programs, just as the color of your M&Ms remain a mystery until they're in your hand, and both the concerts and the candy are of uniformly high quality. In fact, the exquisite ensemble of HRO might be preferable to the chocolate.
Last Friday's concert initially seemed just another example of HRO's excellent reputation. The performance opened with a solid rendition of Danish composer Carl Nielsen's Helios Overture, Opus 17, led by assistant conductor Daniel Altman. HRO's command of dynamics is spectacular, and the various crescendos and decrescendos were subtle and nuanced, yet vivid and exciting as the orchestra swelled and faded dramatically. The violins shimmered over the rapid-fire rataplan of the brass as the overture progressed. Dancing staccato strings quickly relinquished prominence to legato passages for a fuller ensemble, until finally the hall exploded with a burst of trombone fanfare. A subdued orchestra, with piccolo decoration, receded once again into the portentous moodiness of the opening as gruff cellos reappeared to close the piece.
But HRO transcended ordinary expectations with its performance of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, Op. 35. While the appearance of conductor James Yannatos met with the hearty approbation of the audience, the advent of the 1997-98 concerto competition winner produced a reaction more akin to an electric shock. The phenomenon calling himself Joseph Lin '00 strode onto the stage, sweet-faced and supremely self-possessed, and immediately filled Sanders with his charismatic stage presence. Yannatos exchanged a few words with him, then plunged into the beginning of the concerto. Lin remained imperturbable as he hoisted his violin onto his shoulder during the silky orchestral introduction, then abruptly interrupted the orchestra as he entered. Norton Lecturer Joseph Kerman described the violin as "ruthless" in the first movement of the concerto; Lin's fiery performance did indeed seem threatening. The assaulting violin grew almost unbearably loud, until--SNAP!--broken string brought the concerto to a crashing halt. Buzzing murmurs controlled the theater until Lin returned, new string installed, and Yannatos rebegan the concerto.
A second listen to the first few minutes provided an opportunity to more fully absorb the complexities of Lin's remarkable performance. HRO lockstep accompaniment was seamless. The sheer physicality of the performance was mesmerizing. Stretching string players and puffing wind players provided little visual contrast to Lin as he leaned and swayed with his violin, and the stage seemed a kinesthetic blur of motion as the insistent, piercing violin relentlessly piled the tension higher. Huge silences punctuated the cadenza; Lin masterfully made the gaping gaps of sound as arresting and palpable as his pure high melodies or mellifluous low phrases. He dared the orchestra to return after the end of his virtuosic turn with cleanly executed runs of eighth notes, and the first movement ended shortly thereafter.
Lin's performance retained heart and heat throughout this and the third, increasingly intense, movement. His performance grabbed its listeners by their lapels and sucked them into the now-manic, now-dejected concerto. The amazing Lin combined impeccable technique, angelic tone, and exceptional musicality in his supremely expressive interpretation of the well-loved piece. His prodigious gifts will illumine any stage he touches, and future concerts should add even more impressive credits to his already lengthy list of accolades.
But there is life after Lin, as HRO proved after intermission in its performance of Shih-Hui Chen's Moments for Orchestra. The piece was commissioned as a children's work, and the programmatic nature of the music was easy to hear. The first movement, "Two Ghosts," sounded as spooky as the name might have implied. Eerie, gentle phrasing underscored the motion of the "High Ghost" and the "Low Ghost" between the chimes and glockenspiel and the tuba and low strings. An unusually quiet orchestra exquisitely realized the dissonance. (HRO is master of the loud; exuberant finales seemed continually to hit new heights of forte during the concert.) The dramatic dynamic shift was especially effective since the next movement, "Warrior," opened with a drum shot like a pistol crack and only became more intense after that. Every phrase in this movement seemed fraught with some deeper meaning, as ponderous strings led the orchestra to a profound conclusion and a transition to "Sleepy Bones," the last and perhaps loveliest of the movements. A lucid, delicate flute line passed to a low and beautiful viola as this most melodic of the movements progressed to an ending almost beyond endurance in its volume and dissonance.
A more tranquil work, Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2, closed the concert. Unfortunately, various events so depleted the ranks of available singers that the choral component of Ravel's score remained unsung. Fortunately, the lack was hardly noticed in the grandeur of the orchestra's performance. The opening rills for wind and harp, although punctuated by two unmerciful squeaks, created a setting of pastoral calm. Dense, lush orchestration frequently dissolved into the quickness and light of lighter sections; this is clearly recognizable as music for the ballet. Clear articulation was a hallmark of the performance of this epic yet fairylike piece, and once again, HRO strained Sanders with the strength and power of the final few chords of the piece.
A real treat for the ears, this concert was exceptionally satisfying. Pass on the chocolate if you must, but don't skip HRO next time around.
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