Frank Almond + Barber Violin Concerto = Beauty
Sweet, warm singing sound, made without apparent strain or even effort, has been the salient characteristic of Frank Almond‘s violin playing as long as I have known him. Friday night, Almond made a perfect match with Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, which he performed with the Milwaukee Symphony and music director Edo de Waart.
Long, dreamy tunes abound in the first two movements. They spin out at length and sometimes change their natures as they do. The opening theme, laid out immediately in the violin, goes on and on. The trick is to phrase it — subdivide it, in a way — so that it remains coherent and has a little momentum. Almond did that and made Barber’s argument easy to follow. The second theme begins as an oddly gentle fanfare, but becomes a poignant reverie when the violin takes it over; the transformation was touching Friday.
Those themes have the propulsion of song behind them. The second movement is almost entirely rhetorical. Almond handled the speech patterns and rhythms eloquently, as the ardent gave way to the defiant, which gave way to resignation and then to transcendence.
All that went away in the finale. Almond and Barber both are about beauty first, but not only beauty. The flashy, brilliant finale exists to show off the violinist’s dazzling speed and get the audience to its feet. It worked.
Bartók composed his Concerto for Orchestra in part to display the virtuosity of the Boston Symphony. If anyone had any doubt about the virtuoso status of the MSO, its Friday reading of this great piece would put them to rest. Brilliant, unfettered, flexible playing in the string sections and confident, precise solos and duets in the brasses and winds impressed at every turn.
The cohesion and balance of the orchestra in tutti passages rose from more than the very good intonation and ensemble. It spoke to a high level of attention and alertness and a sensitivity to the big impulses in the music. Of course de Waart can take credit for that. He knows exactly where the music ought to go, gets that across in rehearsal and makes it stick in performance.
His rhythm is so refined that he worked all manner of nuanced rubato into Bartók’s Concerto, which in any case speeds and slows and changes mood fitfully. Through it all, the rhythms felt taut in their proportions. Even when the music slowed nearly to a stop, you could feel the push of restrained momentum. When you feel that, you pay attention to the music from the first note to the last.
This program, given at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $25-$95; call the MSO ticket line, 414-291-7605; the Marcus box office, 414-273-7206; or visit the MSO website. On Sunday, the program will travel to the Wisconsin Union Theater.