Published January 13. 2013 4:00AM Updated January 13. 2013 6:12PM
New London — With the right soloist and the right attitude, there are few show-stoppers in the classical repertoire to upstage Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto. Saturday night at the Garde Arts Center, violinist Chelsea Starbuck Smith got it right on all counts.
The winner of the 2012 ECSO Instrumental Competition, Smith dominated the stage and electrified the audience with her high-powered and knowing performance with the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra led by Music Director Toshi Shimada. Smith performed with the oversize sound essential for a soloist, a spot-on intonation and fearless attack in some of the daunting passagework of this earthy, rough-and-tumble piece.
Nowhere was her technical aplomb and bravado more exciting than in the blazing final pages of the whirlwind last movement. When many violinist's flag after so many demanding measures, emerging from the lyrical third theme of the rondo to start the coda, Smith smiled as she attacked the blistering stops driving to the finale. Shimada, bent at the knees as if exhorting her on, shared her delight.
This concerto, once considered all but unplayable, needs a sense of danger, like a careening bobsled run, to have its best effect, and Easton native Smith, both confident and commanding, repeatedly pushed tempo in the first movement, creating some moments of bad ensemble but building a certain frisson that added to the excitement.
Dressed in a strapless purple gown, the young Juilliard School student was a compelling presence on the stage. In the opening movement, she ended rising phrases with a toss of her head and a flourish of the bow, and she was oddly reminiscent of that most patrician of violinist, Jascha Heifetz, in some mannerisms. Like Heifetz, she would draw herself to full height and hold her chin high and close her eyes in long legatos, and in the lyric moments of the final movement, much like Heifetz, she bent her head low to rest her cheek against her violin in seeming meditation.
Whether playing dark gritty stops, the singing lines of the andante or the grand first movement theme with a skittery delicacy and playfulness, Smith had the audience on the edge of their seats, with many, like Shimada, simply grinning in the pleasure of her performance.
Saturday's program opened with a short work by recent Yale graduate Emily Cooley called "Render and Reach," a nicely crafted but very compact set of variations on an angular, catchy theme. Highly rhythmic and terse, it felt more like a study piece than a completed composition, full of nice ideas based on a fine theme for variation, but too abrupt in its treatments.
The second half of the program featured Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 (oddly placing the composer's Opus 36 directly following his Opus 35). This symphony requires a sense of fluid dynamics and vivid orchestral color to succeed, as it has little true development, relying primarily on repeats and sequencing to give it a sense of forward motion. It provided an intriguing contrast to the concerto.
Tchaikovsky was a composer most comfortable on the stage, where his ballets and operas best displayed his melodic and dramatic gifts. In the violin concerto, he has a prima donna, a leading lady in the guise of the violin soloist, who can give voice to his rhythmic and thematic powers. In the symphonies, he must rely on orchestration and very often sheer volume to succeed.
Despite some ragged playing in the horn section in the first movement, Shimada plumbed as varied a range of orchestral colors as you could hope for, and the ECSO's fine principals all had a chance to shine, including flutist Nancy Chaput, oboist Anne Megan, clarinetist Kelli O'Connor and piccolo principal Cheryl Six. The trombones again and again powered the outer movements and in the scherzo, the double basses got to show off in one of the longest and most testing pizzicato expanses for bass.
After the symphony's roof-rattling finale, Shimada returned to lead a soothing encore of a Dvorak Slavonic Dance.