Review: Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto becomes an intimate tour de force when Vadim Gluzman joins Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in Easton

By: Steve Siegel – February 4th, 2017

On the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s performance at the Williams Art Center at Lafayette College, in Easton, PA, on February 3rd, 2017.

When the Ukrainian-born Israeli violinist Vadim Gluzman last performed with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at Lafayette College’s Williams Center in 2011, it was in Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2. On Friday evening, Gluzman returned to the Williams Center with Orpheus for the orchestra’s first-ever performance of the Tchaikovsky D Major Violin Concerto. Also on the program was the premiere of Michael Hersch’s “end stages,” commissioned by Orpheus, and Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3, “Scottish.”

I had the pleasure of hearing Gluzman perform the Tchaikovsky with the Reading Symphony Orchestra almost a year ago to the day, allowing a rare opportunity for comparison. In both cases, he gave this overwhelmingly lyrical work its due, with a big, golden, singing tone. Gluzman took the demanding first movement in stride, playing almost continuously throughout, hitting upper notes with flawless purity.

With the conductor-less Orpheus, however, the work took on the more subtle, intimate aura of chamber music. It was almost like hearing a recital, with Gluzman more daring with rubato and taking more chances with ornamentation. The ferocious cadenza was a performance highlight, with gorgeous trills and a sweetness of tone that drew mummers of approval from the sold-out house.

Gluzman gave his instrument a passionate, gypsy-like voice in the soulful andante, accompanied in one section by some of the loveliest woodwind work I’ve heard from Orpheus. The finale ensued with hardly space for a breadth. Gluzman served up a dazzling array of pyrotechnics, wonderfully engaging rubato, and plenty more of those delightful upper-register notes.

Throughout the entire piece, there was a complete lack of flashiness for its own sake – Gluzman let Tchaikovsky’s voice speak for itself. As a well-deserved encore, Gluzman and the orchestra performed the polka from Shostakovich’s whimsical Jazz Suite No. 2.

The portrayal of human suffering is as much an important tradition in Western music as it is in the visual arts. Few painters have tackled the subject as convincingly as Francis Bacon, whose “Three Studies for Figurines at the Base of a Crucifixion” of 1944 was inspired by a scene from Eisenstein’s 1925 film “Battleship Potemkin,” showing in close-up the face of a screaming woman who has just been shot.

In that vein, composer Michael Hersch and Bacon are soulmates. Hersch’s “end game” is a set of eight reflections on sketches by artist Kevin Tuttle depicting the process and emotional impact of losing a loved one to a terminal illness. Each of the brief sections (perhaps not brief enough, depending on one’s sensibility) is a nightmarish tour de force that manages to evoke both the agony of the one suffering and the sense of outrage and helplessness of the observer.

Pangs of pain are administered by sharp, stabbing thrusts of the violins, while abrasive woodwinds shriek in searing accompaniment. Visual impact is thoughtfully provided by Tuttle’s stark, cadaverous sketches reproduced in the concert program. Throughout each section of uncompromising harshness plays a subtle, sustained monotone shared by various instruments – is this the soul of the sufferer patiently waiting to escape, or the listener waiting for the next morphine drip?

Orpheus was marvelous in Mendelssohn’s dramatic “Scottish” symphony, imparting an almost Brahmsian grandeur to the stormy work. One could almost hear waves crashing off the isle’s rocky coast in the solemn opening movement. The lighthearted scherzo was sprinkled with the kind of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” fairy dust that Mendelssohn spreads so liberally throughout all of his compositions. A Scottish folk theme, introduced by the clarinet, was lovingly reflected by oboe and flute. Folk melodies appeared again in the finale, an exuberant country dance that concludes in triumph, as if a battle were won.