Arts & Events

Vilde Frang Performs Elgar’s Violin Concerto

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday May 31, 2019 - 10:24:00 AM

Young Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang, who debuted in San Francisco in 2014 with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, returned to Davies Hall for three performances, Thursday-Saturday, May 23-5, with the San Francisco Symphony led by guest conductor Krzysztof Urbanski. I attended the Saturday, May 25 performance. Vilde Frang was featured as soloist in Edward Elgar’s Violin Concerto in B minor, Opus 61 (1910). For some reason, this concerto is rarely heard. It has only been performed here twice: once in 1985, and again in 1998, both times with Pinchas Zukerman as soloist. Though bursting with Romantic lyricism, it is also fiendishly difficult.  

In composing this work, Elgar consulted with violinist William H. Reed, whose advice the composer sought on technical concerns. Much of the time, the soloist must play against an orchestra playing forte. When the soloist’s part is at or near the top of the violin’s register, this makes it difficult, though not impossible, for the solo violin to be heard. Vilde Frang made the best of these difficult moments, though where she really shone was in passages that featured her gorgeous tone in the low register of her 1864 instrument by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume.  

A work in three movements, Elgar’s Violin Concerto opens with a lengthy orchestral introduction. When the soloist eventually enters, uncharacteristically, on the introduction’s closing bars, the solo violin simply completes the phrase begun in the orchestra. Immediately, however, the solo violin begins to introduce a wealth of new material. Beginning quietly, the soloist, here Vilde Frang, gradually heats up the music in a stormy development, but then she slows everything down as she initiates a more melancholy mood. Throughout this movement, there is interesting give-and-take between orchestra and soloist. In this regard, conductor Urbanski and soloist Frang seemed totally in synch. Vilde Frang negotiated the more vigorous passages with intensity of focus and technical aplomb. 

The second movement, a slow Andante, is set in B-flat Major. Though the music opens quietly, the soloist speeds things up, while the dynamics remain soft. A sudden virtuoso leap was brilliantly performed by Vilde Frang. This leap, unexpect-edly wild, recurs a second time, now introduced by a subtle use of Wagner’s famed “Tristan chord.” But the coda returns to a quiet, hushed tone.  

The third and final movement, marked Allegro molto, is where, against tradition, Elgar chose to give the soloist a cadenza. Even here, however, Elgar goes against the grain, for cadenzas are usually unaccompanied, while Elgar has written a cadenza accompagnata. Moreover, the cadenza is marked Lento, or Slow. In this cadenza Vilde Frang was at her best. Her ravishing tone in the low register shone forth in lush, lyrical passages. There was virtuosity galore, but it was generally unobtrusive virtuosity, subtly integrated with the moments of light orchestral accompaniment. Once the cadenza is concluded, the movement takes off once again in Allegro molto tempo and surges forward to a brilliant conclusion, last expressed in the horns. 

Opening the concert, in a switch from the printed program, was Grazyna Bacewicz’s Overture (1943). Never having heard any of Bacewicz’s music before, I was struck by the prominent, almost stridently insistent use of the brass section that I found somewhat surprising, indeed, almost disconcerting, in a work by a Polish composer written in 1943, a brutal year for World War II Poland. One might admire the pluck of this female Polish composer who strikes an optimistic note in the face of tragedy, but I for one found more enjoyment in the quiet use of woodwinds than in the composer’s repeatedly belligerent writing for brass.  

After intermission, Krzysztof Urbanski led the orchestra in Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 in A Major, Opus 90, Italian, written in 1833. Urbanski has an elegant conducting style. With baton in his right hand, he beats the time. With his left hand he directs all the nuances, singling out individual sections or soloists, or, conversely, calling for broad sweeping gestures from the orchestra as a whole. Now returning here for the third time, Krzysztof Urbanski seems to have established a fine rapport with the Symphony orchestra, who react favorably to his elegant, slightly reserved conducting style. Their rendition of Mendelssohn’s much loved Fourth Symphony was a delight. I especially enjoyed the way the various brass instruments (trombone, horn, and trumpet) echo one another at several moments in the first movement. Likewise, I loved the introduction by softly played woodwinds that opens the final movement. All told, a fine concert full of music both unfamiliar and familiar, all performed with aplomb.