Arts & Events

Benjamin Beilman Excels in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday August 04, 2017 - 11:39:00 AM

These days, it seems there is a veritable worldwide explosion of talented young violinists and pianists, all seemingly armed with flawless technique. American-born violinist Benjamin Beilman, age 27, has awesome technique; but Beilman also has something surprising in such a young performer – a wonderful interpretive feel for the delicacy as well as the sheer power of music. As soloist in the San Francisco Symphony’s performances at Davies Hall, July 28-9, of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, Benjamin Beilman sensitively brought out far more delicacy in that familiar work than I have ever heard before. With Guest Conductor Juraj Valčuha leading the way, Beilman was acutely respectful of dynamics in this concerto, with the result that the fiery pyrotechnics of Tchaikovsky’s score were set in sharp contrast to the soft, delicate passages that are too often played as if they too were marked fortissimo or at least forte. Beilman set the tone from the outset, offering a delicate filagree in the first movement’s Allegro moderato section, then redoubling that gossamer touch in the Moderato assai section. Beilman also excelled in the First movement’s cadenza. 

The second movement, marked Canzonetta Andante, begins in the woodwinds, then unfolds in muted violin, offering a lilting melody that serves as first subject, followed by a graceful second subject. Shortly, the lyrical first subject returns for further elaboration. Then, without pause, Tchaikovsky launches into the coarse-grained Finale in the form of a Russian folk dance. The passage work here is fearsomely demanding, and Benjamin Beilman displayed admirable technique in meeting the challenge. More than that, Beilman even brought out the occasional delicacy in passages of the boisterous Finale, as for example in the moments when the solo violin states a delicate theme that is answered, softly, in the cellos, then repeats the phrase with variation only to be answered again, softly, by the cellos. Once again, these soft and delicate moments were set in sharp contrast to the famously strident outbursts in Tchaikovsky’s Finale. This attention to dynamics was a credit to both Beilman as soloist and Valčuha as conductor. In response to thunderous applause, Benjamin Beilman played as encore one of the Partitas from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. During intermission, I spoke with one of the Symphony’s members of the violin section, and we both marveled over the delicacy of Beilman’s performance, which shows that his soft touch was appreciated by the musicians as much as by the audience. This was Tchaikovsky as we’ve never heard him before; but let us hope we hear Tchaikovsky this way again in the future.  

Opening the program was Alexander Glazunov’s Concerto Waltz No.1 in D Major. This is an ingratiating piece, a bit schmaltzy, but definitely in the genre of waltzes made famous by the Viennese Strauss family. Glazunov introduced this brief work in St. Petersburg, where it was hugely successful at the Tsarist court.  

After intermission the orchestra returned to perform Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition as orchestrated by Maurice Ravel. Mussorgsky composed this work as a piano suite, and there exists a lovely recording of it for piano by Vladimir Horowitz on RCA Victor. Of the many orchestrations of Pictures at an Exhibition pride of place goes to the Maurice Ravel version heard here in San Francisco. In the genre of program music, Pictures at an Exhibition is an outstanding work. Mussorgsky composed it in honor of a posthumous exhibition of paintings and drawings by his friend Victor Hartmann, and Mussorgsky gave his composition the structure of a leisurely promenade through the exhibition, with stops at various pictures seen along the way. Rarely has music so successfully engaged in scene painting as it does in this brilliant work.  

Pictures opens with a Promenade theme heard in the brass in Ravel’s orchestration. Then the composer stops to look at the first picture, Gnomus, a portrait of a deformed little gnome in the guise of a nutcracker. Mussorgsky depicts the humorous and fantastic elements of this picture with hesitant, almost jerky rhythms suggestive of the ungainly movements of this gnome. Next comes a picture of Il vecchio castello, a medieval Italian castle, which Mussorgsky sets to moody melodies, first in the bassoon, then in the saxophone. Then the Promenade returns, this time in trumpet, trombone and tuba, before we stop before a painting of the Tuileries Gardens of Paris. Here Mussorgsky suggests the gay chattering of children as they run about and play, heard largely in the flutes. Following this we come to a picture of a Polish oxcart, a Bydlo, musically rendered by a solo tuba, admirably played here by Jeffrey Anderson, suggesting the halting, lumbering movement of the oxcart. A return of the Promenade theme brings us to the Ballet of Unhatched Chickens, a capriciously delightful rendering of the chirping of chicks in their eggs. Next comes a portrait of Two Polish Jews, One Rich, One Poor. Without anti-Semitic malice, the Rich Jew is depicted in a pompous passage in the basses, while the Poor Jew is introduced in an abrupt subject for muted trumpets. Following this comes a picture of The Marketplace at Limoges, suggested in music as a colorful, bustling scene with leaping rhythms. Then a moody version of the Promenade leads to a picture of the Catacombs in Paris. The music here is somber, heavy, yet full of reverence for the dead. Lightness returns in the picture A Hut on Fowl’s Legs, a humorous take on Russian folk tales, with music that is both humorous and sinister. The concluding picture is of The Great Gate of Kiev, set to music of grandiose proportions, complete with the tolling of bells, as Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition closes on a dramatic note. Throughout this work, Conductor Juraj Valčuha led the San Francisco Symphony with large, sweeping gestures and sharply accented rhythms, giving Mussorgsky’s music a welcome vitality. 


Note: At the end of my review of Merola’s 3 one-act operas in last Friday’s edition, July 28, I urged readers to attend the Merola Grande Finale in August. Alas, in doing so I mistakenly gave the wrong date. I apologize for the error. The correct date for this event is Saturday evening, August 19, at the War Memorial Opera House.