October 7, 2010

Knoxville, September of 2010 - Dylana Jenson's Tchaikovsky Concerto

In his notes about Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35, Chicago Symphony program annotator Philip Huscher notes that Tchaikovsky was incredibly inspired by Edouard Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole, as well as impressed by the way that Lalo thought “more about musical beauty than observing established traditions". While Tchaikovsky completed his concerto rather quickly, however, performances of the work did run into problems, the first being Leopold Auer’s declaration that the concerto was “unplayable”. Ironically, after the work was premiered in Vienna by Adolf Brodsky and became one of the most loved of Tchaikovsky’s works despite a crushing review, Mr. Auer became somewhat the chief exponent of the concerto, adding it to his repertoire and teaching it to his students, including Toscha Seidel, Efrem Zimbalist, Mischa Elman, Jascha Heifetz, and Nathan Milstein – all of whom became the greatest exponents of the work during the twentieth century.

While the concerto is definitely a tour de force, requiring a complete technique, great musical sensibilities and almost Herculean stamina of the violinist who undertakes both the tasks of learning and performing it, “unplayable” is not the word that came to mind while hearing Dylana Jenson’s performances with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra on September 23 and 24, 2010. Ms. Jenson is a consummate master of the violin and this was the second time that I have heard her in live performance, the first being a stunning 2003 performance of the Goldmark Concerto with the Louisiana Philharmonic. Of the 2003 performance it must be said that the orchestra was captivated by her playing, particularly her heartfelt rendering of the Andante (if memory serves me, there were tears in the eyes of a few violinists after the first four measures).

Back to September 2010: from her first notes, it was clear that Ms. Jenson’s performance of the Tchaikovsky was going to be like no other that I have heard. Throughout the first movement Ms. Jenson played with a sumptuous tone and an incredibly sophisticated sense of phrasing, a sense of undulation permeating the cantabile sections. Unlike many violinists who approach the knotty double stops and quicksilver scales as “show-off” sections, however, Ms. Jensen played those sections – and shaped them – effortlessly while also placing them in the appropriate musical context of the movement. This was not a self-indulgent exhibition of acrobatic ability: rather, this was a true dialogue – a journey, if I may.

One could easily say that the lack of self-aggrandizement inherent in this performance came from the fact that Ms. Jenson has nothing to “prove”: after all, she was a silver medalist in the 1978 Tchaikovsky Competition and has performed as soloist with orchestras throughout the world. However, if one studies her recordings – particularly her most recent recording of the Shostakovich and Barber concerti as well as her very famous recording of the Sibelius Concerto – one will hear the sense of selflessness, assurance, and musical reverence that was hallmark of this recent performance.

This sense of reverence and exploration was evident in the very intimate Canzonetta. Ms. Jenson was introspective rather than “large” in this movement, using a huge expressive palate including notes sculpted with the bow and played sans vibrato, and high notes tenderly cascading through the air like incense smoke. Again, not expected, yet this seemingly understated interpretation was most convincing and beautiful, with equally compelling accompaniment from clarinetist Gary Sperl and flutist Nadine Hur.

Ms. Jenson showed herself to be a firebrand during the Finale, which was definitely a robust Allegro vivacissimo. With technique to burn, Ms. Jenson showed great dexterity throughout, alternating an unusual lightness in sixteenth-note passages with weighty yet quicksilver double-stop playing. Her knowledge of musical language truly showed itself here: in many of those sections one could hear the continuum in Russian music that appears in the vertical attacks found in works by both Stravinsky and Shostakovich. This was balanced by a wondrous sense of musical space and time in the legato sections and, in the short unaccompanied sections, a real sense of musical structure and – with the conspicuous yet convincing absence of vibrato used to heighten tritones and other dissonances – musical humor.

Lucas Richman and the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra accompanied Ms. Jenson both attentively and convincingly during the entire work, the orchestra joining the excitement that led to a triumphant finish rewarded with long standing ovations on after both performances.

With having received overwhemingly glowing reviews for her recent recording of the Shostakovich and Barber concerti, it is clear that Dylana Jenson remains one of the most important violinists and compelling musicians of our time.

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