The Sibelius Violin Concerto is a half-hour of heaven on earth and the perfect virtuoso vehicle for a violinist of Hilary Hahn’s caliber. New Jersey Symphony gave concertgoers the chance to hear the Hahn-Sibelius pairing alongside pieces by Coleridge-Taylor and Prokofiev in two concerts over the weekend: Jan. 28 at the Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank and Jan. 29 at NJPAC in Newark.
I attended the NJPAC concert, which attracted a packed house. Its official title was “Hilary Hahn and Xian Zhang Reunite!,” but there are no guarantees during a pandemic: Zhang stepped down from both concerts after testing positive for COVID-19 during routing screenings and cover conductor Adam Glaser stepped in.
Hahn is an extraordinarily meticulous interpreter of Sibelius. The Finnish composer was a gifted violinist who understood every nuance of the instrument. His beloved concerto taps into the limitless technique and expressive scope of the violin repertoire, making it one of the greatest virtuoso showpieces of all time. It’s become one of Hahn’s signature pieces, well-matched to her musical and technical excellence. She has played it around the world since 2009, when her recording of it (along with Schoenberg’s violin concerto, with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting) netted a Grammy Award.
The work premiered in Finland in 1904, and was played one year later in an extensively revised and final edition. It was unique among the composer’s output as the only work written for a solo instrument and orchestra. It’s complex but not showy, which is why the Hahn-Zhang match is so perfect. Since becoming the NJS music director in 2016, Zhang has led her musicians in immaculate technique with little showmanship or pomposity.
The less-is-more philosophy stuck with Glaser, music director of the Juilliard Pre-College Orchestras and associate professor of music and director of orchestras at Hofstra University. He set down the delicately sustained pianissimo of the strings in the allegro moderato with a light hand and followed with solid, clean phrasing and articulation. The orchestra’s secondary role allowed Hahn to embark on clear, intelligible musical language with grace and eloquence. The expanded cadenza — the work’s most thrilling passage — grew beautifully with big vibrant tones right through to the breathtaking coda. Hahn’s lyrical, luminous and penetrating tonal vocabulary was full of intelligence and substance.
The orchestra’s characteristic warm, lush, colorful tonalities brought out more of Sibelius’ fire than Scandinavian ice. The mood was sultrier and more romantic than tempestuous and brooding. At times, like in the Adagio movement, its haunting themes bordered on melodramatic against Hahn’s lyricism.
A finale with rapid-fire string crossings and dexterous octave work showed off Hahn’s flexibility and fluidity. She floated the gentlest grace notes with ease. Re-entries with the orchestra were master classes in articulation, phrasing and pacing against the expressive strings. A standing ovation was followed by an encore of Bach’s Sarabande from the Violin Partita No. 2 in D Minor.
The remainder of the program accentuated the orchestra’s beautiful, exuberant high color beginning with Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5, composed in 1944 after the Russian composer returned to the Soviet Union from almost 20 years abroad.
Glaser led a faithful and methodical interpretation, sticking closely to the sumptuous melodies and grand beauties of Prokofiev’s optimistic and patriotic themes. The Allegro marcato’s fantastic scherzo captured all of Prokofiev’s nuances and passions at a brisk clip. The lyricism of the emotional Adagio built to the final fourth movement rondo of rich harmonies.
Glaser’s aptitude as a composer and jazz pianist showed in Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s “Ballade in A Minor” from 1898. The work was commissioned by the Three Choirs Festival on the recommendation of Edward Elgar and its successful premiere made him an overnight sensation.
The single-movement work structured around the sonata mixes romanticism with folkish themes. Glaser balanced the tremendous color of the commanding woodwinds and strings with brilliant brass dynamics.
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