National Symphony Orchestra: Kristjan Järvi, Conductor and Jennifer Koh, Violin, Plays Barber by Emily Cao

The National Symphony Orchestra continues it’s eighty-third season at The Kennedy Center with a splendid evening of twentieth-century compositions as talented guest conductor Kristjan Järvi leads the orchestra in Enescu’s Rumanian Rhapsody, followed by Barber’s Violin Concerto, featuring solo violinist Jennifer Koh, and finally Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances.

 Conductor Kristjan Järvi. Photo by Peter Rigaud.
Conductor Kristjan Järvi. Photo by Peter Rigaud.

To begin the evening, Estonian-American guest conductor Kristjan Järvi cues in the soft lilt of a solo clarinet in the first notes of George Enescu’s Rumanian Rhapsody No. 1, Op. 11. The lone woodwind is soon followed by his compatriots the oboe and flute as they fall into a melodious dance that serves as the introduction to the lively instrumental dance that is a rhapsody. The piece is an amalgamation of whimsies of various styles – cutting from swing-style folk rhapsody motifs to waltz-like, energetic string runs throughout.

Composer George Enescu is likely the most unfamiliar name on the program – a phenomenon that is unfair in its neglect of the composer’s musical genius and his renown in his homeland of Romania. Rumanian Rhapsody is arguably his most famous work – a unique, fun, and intense piece of orchestral ingenuity lauded for its integration of Eastern folk themes with traditional Western structure.

Kristjan Järvi’s individual conducting style wonderfully accentuates the piece’s rushing energy; together, they are a perfect match in enthusiasm level. Järvi is one of those rare conductors who is able to uncannily embody the music’s form in his visual performance. His full-bodied movements, wide-sweeping signaling with his arms, and even foot stomping reflect not only the true message of the music he is channeling, but also his own adoration for his work. Järvi taps his feet and leaps and jaunts on the podium as he guides the orchestra, performing at its absolute best in this high-velocity setting, through an altogether impressive middle section of fast string arpeggios in an Eastern key. With his artistic flair and infectious enthusiasm, Järvi is a pleasure to watch as he moves with rhythmic vitality, pushing the orchestra on in a spectacular finish that had audience jumping to their feet in a standing ovation and hails of “Bravo!”

The evening continues with an altogether different style of music, albeit one written not too far distant in time. Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto Op. 14, composed in 1939 by the prolific and highly acclaimed American composer, forms the centerpiece of this concert series as the vehicle used to highlight the clear lyricism of guest violin soloist Jennifer Koh.

Koh dazzles in her performance of the famous concerto – a staple of violin repertoire – from the initial breathy notes of the first movement’s familiar melody. An International Tchaikovsky Competition winner, a graduate of the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, and an internationally acclaimed soloist since her debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the tender age of eleven, Koh’s credentials are beyond impressive. Yet, even so, they in no way prepare the audience for her biggest accomplishment – an astoundingly beautiful, delicate sound delivered with a humble attitude. Koh has a sweeping, genial, clear tone that is a rare gem amongst violinists today. Her seemingly effortless bow strokes belie her innate talent of projecting sound without distortion. In a phrase, her playing is real and true. The partnership of Koh’s style and Barber’s intention creates a moving romanticism that delivers on the intended passion of the melody. As typical of instrumental soloist concertos, a sweeping and melody-driven first movement leads into a slower, more heartfelt, and entirely familiar melody of the second movement, before jumping headfirst into the energetic, devilishly fast third movement that reveals Koh’s technical prowess as a true violin virtuoso. Koh received a well-deserved three rounds of standing ovations for her rendition of the classically beloved concerto.

The second half of the evening begins and ends with the lengthy Symphonic Dances, Op. 45, by Sergei Rachmaninoff. One of Rachmaninoff’s last compositions, the musical style of the piece matches all too perfectly with the method in which it was written – of extreme vigor and drive. The full NSO comes back in this final piece again featuring the lively leadership of maestro Järvi.

Jennifer Koh. Photo by Janette Beckman.
Jennifer Koh. Photo by Janette Beckman.

In three movements, Symphonic Dances begins with an enthusiastic allegro marked by a repetitive three-note motif reminiscent of symphonic styles from the Romantic era. The second movement is defined by a minor key and sinister harmonies to the beat of the three-step waltz, one that quickly escalates to a brisk urgency as led by the conductor’s enlivened cues. Järvi’s motioning leadership brings order to the orchestra in the midst of the intentional jumbled clamor that is the third movement, as strings and percussion rumble to different keys and speeds. The orchestra, led by high strings, rushes into an explosive finale – loud and powerful – that fill the concert hall in its entirety with audial color. Without a doubt, this incredibly technique-driven monster of a piece that is the Symphonic Dances is among the most successful in highlighting the sheer raw talent of this season’s NSO.

The combination of the three powerful, moving, energetic pieces, coupled with the two immensely talented guest artists in conductor Kristjan Järvi and Jennifer Koh, makes this concert one of the NSO’s best thus far this season and certainly one not to be missed.

The National Symphony Orchestra Kristjan Järvi, Conductor  and Jennifer Koh, Violin, Plays Barber has one more performance tonight at 8 PM at The Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.


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