Two Violin Concertos with the Berkeley Symphony

Last Thursday Dave and I went to hear the Berkeley Symphony’s season opener, a performance of not just one but two violin concertos, the Beethoven and the John Adams, both played by violinist and superhuman Jennifer Koh. In both works the violinist is kept very, very busy, and just to play the solo parts of both adequately in a single evening, without your bowing arm falling off, would be an amazing enough accomplishment. But Ms. Koh also played them both dazzlingly well, with all sorts of wit, insight, power, and precision. Dave and I have been hearing the Beethoven violin concerto rather a lot lately, including a really terrific performance with Hilary Hahn as soloist that was broadcast from the BBC proms; and still I heard details and nuances in Ms. Koh’s performance that I don’t remember noticing before. Really wonderful.

I had not heard the John Adams violin concerto before. I’m not sure how much I like it; it’ll probably take me a few hearings before I know. It’s certainly striking and atmospheric music, but it didn’t feel to me like it moved or developed much. However, I’m not always a good listener and sometimes it takes me a while to start hearing things in a piece of music that’s new to me, so I have to grant the possibility that I just haven’t gotten this one yet. In any case, Ms. Koh played it with great spirit and precision and, at times, physical vigor. I figure after a double bill like this one, she gets to skip the gym for a week.

This is Joana Carneiro’s second year as conductor and music director, and I thought the orchestra was sounding very polished, much more so than it has in the past; as exciting as the performances usually were when Kent Nagano was conducting, there was always a bit of scrappiness in the playing. Not so this time. Dave and I went to only one of their concerts last year, and that was early in the season, so this is the first time we’ve heard the orchestra in about a year; under Ms. Carneiro they’ve come a long way in a short time.

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One thought on “Two Violin Concertos with the Berkeley Symphony

  1. I heard Joana Carneiro’s first concert last year and, well, who ever heard of a dull performance of the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra? My mind wandered during it. But, and this is a big but, I was seated in the orchestra section off to the side and the Zellerbach acoustics are unpredictable, to put it charitably.

    I heard Jennifer Koh play Kaija Saariaho’s “Graal Theatre,” a concerto with either large or chamber orchestra, a few years ago and she was stupendous.

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