Young violinist, Montclair Orchestra earn their kilts in Scottish program

Mon Mar 09, 2020 at 12:10 pm
Richard Lin performed Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy with the Montclair Orchestra on Sunday. Photo: Adam Anik

Montclair’s heart was in the Highlands Sunday as the New Jersey suburb turned out to hear its eponymous orchestra in a colorful program of Scottish-themed favorites by Bruch and Mendelssohn, plus a rambunctious novelty by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, at the town’s Central Presbyterian Church.

The Montclair Orchestra, a developmental ensemble in which top students share music stands with experienced orchestral musicians, greeted its fans with “Ceud Mìle Fàilte” (A Hundred Thousand Welcomes), playing with youthful élan and professional polish under the baton of its music director David Chan.

Scotland’s exotic and passionate ethos seemed just as alluring to 21st-century suburbanites as it had been to German artists of all kinds in the Romantic era. Max Bruch traveled there only in his imagination, composing his Scottish Fantasy with the aid of a collection of folk tunes. Yet Felix Mendelssohn included Scotland in his Grand Tour, a rite of passage for well-to-do young men in the 1830s. The sights and sounds of that country on Europe’s wild fringe stayed with him throughout his lamentably short lifetime, finding expression in his Hebrides Overture and the the Symphony No. 3, “Scottish.”

The English composer Davies was perhaps not as “from away” as his continental counterparts, but still for this 20th-century modernist it was quite a cultural leap from his native Manchester to his later home on the remotest of Scotland’s Orkney Islands. In Sunday’s concert his 1985 piece An Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise was no garden-party affair or even a gathering of warriors on a windswept heath, but a slice of the life of people who live hard and play hard, a whisky-driven all-nighter of dancing and drinking almost to oblivion, until the sun came up, bathing the scene in a glow of Scottish legend, complete with bagpiper.

The piece opened in a sudden gust of rain from the strings, a startling effect to begin a piece with, much less a concert. Well-tuned woodwinds intoned Scottish melodies. When the strings returned, it was with sturdy tunes whose modal scales and “Scotch snap” rhythms recalled Bartók’s Hungarian folksong settings.

The orchestra then promptly fell apart—on purpose–as the whisky set in with Davies’s islanders, the trombones lurching one direction and the strings another, stumbling toward dissonant chaos. But string sizzles and shafts of woodwind light announced the rise of the celestial orb, accompanied by kilted piper Kenneth Mackenzie, skirling in rich tones as he walked down the aisle and onto the stage. The full orchestra took up the skirl, engulfing the piper’s melody in a splendid crescendo to close the piece. It would be hard to imagine a more vivid rendering of Davies’s lusty comic tableau than the Montclair players delivered Sunday.

But the concert’s headline event was the appearance by violinist Richard Lin, gold medalist at the most recent International Violin Competition of Indianapolis. As conductor Chan told it to the audience, Lin’s manager suggested he play Bruch’s concerto (full title: Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra with Harp, Freely Using Scottish Folk Melodies) in Montclairwhich reminded Chan of his own student days when playing in a performance of Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony convinced him that an orchestral career might be as rewarding as a solo one.

Chan’s dream of someday conducting that turning-point piece himself met Lin’s real-life program proposal, and a Scottish concert was born.

On Sunday, Lin asserted himself immediately in the Fantasy’s ruminative opening pages, with a long, expressive line and a touch of sandpaper in the tone. The essential, folkloric role of the harp is recognized in the piece’s longer title, and on Sunday harpist Mariko Anraku put bold, colorful playing under Lin’s bardic violin.

Not content with passively accompanying the soloist, conductor Chan treated the work as the orchestral tone poem it is, answering Lin’s soaring phrases with glowing woodwind passages. At times, in fact, robust low-weighted brass crowded the soloist’s singing double-stops a little too much.

Strings kicked off the Scherzo forcefully, touching off an exciting duel with Lin’s violin. Chan made sure to keep the orchestra vital and on the beat even when playing pianissimo under a solo passage. The harp’s clear ripples and Lin’s rhapsodic line kept the music flowing despite occasional problems of tuning and coordination with the winds.

Violin and harp also laid down a strong rhythm for the finale’s kicking dance and variations. The orchestra came back just as strong, and in the variations Lin virtually dared Chan and his players to keep up with his blistering virtuosity, which they did. The exhilarating performance closed with a fortissimo statement of the theme that brought the race to a photo finish and the audience to its feet.

In Mendelssohn’s symphony Chan took the symphony’s Andante opening “con moto” as indicated, with a steady beat building to the passionate fortissimo, then launched the Allegro with crisp attacks. But it proved a little harder to hold the strings and winds together when the dynamic dropped to piano, and perhaps the effort to do so contributed to a thick orchestral texture that tended to weigh Mendelssohn’s lively music down.

There were no such problems with the scherzo-like Vivace, led by Innhyuck Cho’s bubbly clarinet solo and sparkling with staccato violins and twittering woodwinds. In the Adagio, conductor Chan’s steady beat could seem either a virtue or a defect, depending on whether it was allowing a crescendo to swell grandly without rushing or making the music seem to plod along bar by bar without much sense of direction. As everywhere in this performance, balances and phrasing were well attended to, with woodwinds gleaming in support of rich string tone.

Interpreting the composer’s marking Allegro vivacissimo (as lively as possible), Chan led the finale in a moderate tempo but with plenty of force and articulation, which he was able to sustain in the softer passages as well. There were places he could have dropped back further to a real pianissimo, such as in the crisp, fugal dialogue of the development, or at the beginning of the heroic coda. Such were the little touches, along with shifts in color when a new theme came along, that could have turned a well-executed performance into an inspired one.

The Montclair Orchestra, conducted by David Chan, will present singers from the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artists Development Program in works by Mendelssohn, Elgar, Wagner and Liszt, 5 p.m. April 26 at Central Presbyterian Church, Montclair, NJ.; 973-435-2906.

One Response to “Young violinist, Montclair Orchestra earn their kilts in Scottish program”

  1. Posted Mar 11, 2020 at 8:22 am by Adam Anik

    First time I visited your website and I like what I’m reading. Love this review of the Lin and the rest of the Montclair Orchestra performance. The level of detail is very helpful, detailed enough for me to absorb, lively, articulate and engaging. Thank you! I look forward to more from your website!

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