Youth Brings Back Neglected Masterpiece
The San Francisco Symphony (SFS) presented two terrific young artists at its Memorial Day subscription concerts—the violinist Vilde Frang and the conductor Krzysztof Urbanski.
The two collaborated on an absolutely beautiful performance of Edward Elgar’s neglected masterpiece, the Violin Concerto in B minor, Opus 61.
Count me in as one of Elgar’s great fans and admirers. The “Enigma Variations” gets its due as one of the great orchestral pieces of all time. It is one of my very favorites and is often played.
But Opus 61 is virtually ignored by today’s symphony orchestras. Though its world premiere was in 1910, its first performance by the SFS was not until 1985 with Pinchas Zukerman the soloist.
In 1998 Zukerman played it again with the SFS, which means that Pinchas Zukerman was the only violinist to play the Elgar concerto in San Francisco until Vilde Frang came along last weekend.
That’s an absolute scandal—Opus 61 is a great work, ranking ahead of many of the violin concertos that are regularly played in our symphony halls. It deserves to be heard on a more regular basis.
One reason for the neglect, I suspect, is that it is a long sit.
In the SFS program notes, the playing time is listed at about 45 minutes. That is the shorter version. The longer version runs about 55 minutes.
A few days before the concert, I called a friend who is the Artistic Planning Director at a major European orchestra. I asked him what he thought of the Elgar. He replied “Great- except that it’s too long!”
There you have it! What a sad commentary on contemporary symphonic life. A great violin concerto is not played because management feels the modern audience can not deal with its length. That certainly was not my experience last weekend at Davies Hall.
The SF audience was in ‘you can hear a pin drop’ form for the full 45 minutes and burst into feverish applause at the end. It was a spectacular success!!!
If the modern audience wants to get home early, you can put the Elgar on before the break (as was done in San Francisco) and the get-home-early crowd can leave during intermission.
The SFS artistic team deserves kudos for spotting that Elgar’s Opus 61 would be the perfect vehicle for the 32-year old Vilde Frang in her debut appearance with the SFS.
Elgar called his violin concerto, “…awfully emotional, too emotional but I love it.” Ms. Frang, a dreamy type of young woman, was more than up to the work’s demands.
Frang’s was a soft, poetic reading of the work though there were plenty of virtuosic fireworks when the score called for it.
It’s not that she has a small tone…but it’s soft and Mr. Urbanski’s accompaniment was always alert to this fact. Not once did the orchestra drown her out or try to upstage her.
Bravo Maestro Urbanski for a job well done! The SFS musicians sounded great under his leadership. I could sense the great respect and admiration they felt for Elgar, Frang and Urbanski on this very special occasion. The three of them should be back as soon as possible.
There is a sense of warmth, love and mystery in Elgar’s music that I find extraordinarily appealing. In Opus 61, it takes almost to the very end of the concerto for it all to come together in an unusual cadenza that is not totally without orchestral accompaniment.
In the program notes Michael Steinberg writes, “In this cadenza, virtuosity is, to be sure, an indispensable element, but it is unobtrusive. Recalling the past and reflecting on it is everything, as is hardly surprising in music that carries so much emotional freight.”
Frang’s soft and poetic playing of the cadenza transported me to another dimension. One goes through a lot at the symphony hall to experience exquisite moments like these. The piece ends soon after with a recurring theme from the first movement.
Vilde Frang and the Elgar Violin Concerto, Opus 61 were made for one another. I encourage Frang to play it all over the world; that way both will get the attention and admiration they so rightly deserve.