How do you like your classical vehicle to be driven?
Springfield Symphony conductor Kevin Rhodes recently described Beethoven's Seventh Symphony to me as one of those pieces that no one doesn't always enjoy hearing. I know what he meant, and bet you do too. Don't you have those favorites whose appearance on concert programs never make you say "Oh no, not that again?" Of course, not every performance of your fave may live up to the ones you grew up with and are therefore definitive. But no matter; these are the indestructable, invulnerable, bullet-proof super-heroes of classical music, always there to save the day...or at least enliven an otherwise dreary program.
Then there are the fragile flowers of classical masterpiecehood, the ones that need extreme care in handling with if they're going to live another day — or at least keep you from scanning the ads and donor list at the back of your playbill out of boredom. Oh, they're fine pieces all right, as long as the performances bring them to life. The colloquial term for such pieces is "vehicles," and true to the term, they succeed or fail depending on who's driving them. The "vehicle" genre par excellence is the Romantic Concerto, especially those Romantic Concertos that place more emphasis on virtuosity then on more, er, intellectual qualities. In other words, those that aren't by Brahms. Take Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, for instance. An absolutely splendid work of its kind, it gets plenty of play on WFCR. But when you hear that it's coming up, aren't you a bit wary about who's going to play it? So much of the work's appeal depends on whether you like the soloist or not, and a lousy soloist can really ruin your Concerto, if not your day. The CD catalogue hardly lacks for superb renditions, from dead legends like Heifetz and Oistrakh all the way to Grade-A superstars like Joshua Bell and Hilary Hahn. In such a crowded field, it's increasingly difficult for a Tchaikovsky newcomer to find something fresh to say. But to reiterate a point I've made many times in early blog entries, if you don't have something fresh to say about the music, why bother?
You know where this is going. So let's hop into our vehicle and get there: A commendably fresh new performance of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto is coming up a little past 11:30 Monday morning on WFCR. Right from the start, the soloist, young Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang, has me on the edge of my seat, wondering what's going to happen next — and I've heard the darned piece about a zillion times. Her range of tone colors and attacks is exceptionally broad, her phrasing unusually flexible, her technical command top-notch. And yes, she takes some chances, abetted by conductor Eivind Gullberg Jensen and the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra. After our previous broadcast of the performance, Frang's Tchaikovsky didn't add up to much for one gentleman, who phoned to say what a dud he thought it was. Undaunted, we're going to try again. Let me know how you like the way your vehicle's being driven this time.