Popular works hit their marks in WSO season opener

The Williamsburg Symphony Orchestra’s opening concert for the 2017-18 season Monday in the Kimball Theatre got off to a sprightly start with “Bounce,” a work written in 2013 by Adam Schoenberg to celebrate the birth of his son.

Schoenberg is one of the most-played American composers on today’s scene and in this hearing, it’s easy to understand why. “Bounce” is a fresh, spirited swirl of notes and lyricism, with shifting and subtly pulsating rhythmic patterns — an absolutely entertaining piece. Conductor Janna Hymes and orchestra embraced the youthful joy of the work and makes us almost demand to hear more of this engaging composer.

The evening’s spotlight went to guest violin soloist Jennifer Koh in the Sibelius Concerto in D minor, one of the most popularly played works on world stages. Typical of much of Sibelius, it has a brooding sense about it and strong dramatic proportions, not surprising since he was influenced by the likes of Tchaikovsky, Liszt, and Bruckner.

Unlike many such concerti, it is not filled with passages overflowing with melody and luxurious lines. Rather, the D minor blends moments of strong solo statement with orchestral ones, making the two partners in playing.

From the very first line of the first movement, it was clear that this concerto is not for the faint of heart or talent. Its virtuoso demands were in demand within the first three minutes. Equally and quickly evident was the expected drama and intensity that reflects much of his symphonic work. The challenging D minor offers captivating listening.

Quite obviously, Koh was well equipped to handle the job. She is widely acclaimed for her extreme skill and artistry, as evidenced through her many recordings, prestigious awards, and appearances with the likes of the Los Angeles, Czech and New York Philharmonics. Her credentials were on full display in this WSO performance. Koh’s virtuoso talents were dazzling, her sense of lyricism, delicacy and intensity of heightened and equal quality, and her overall approach of the highest order.

Inasmuch as the Sibelius has an overarching orchestral quality to it, with its shared degrees of main stage playing with the violin, the orchestra’s output was equally impressive. Hymes shaped the orchestral lines to reflect the work’s sweeping scope of drama and technical demands, blending them with those of Koh for a perfect product.

What can you say about Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 (“From the New World”) that hasn’t been said. One of the most popular and played works in the classical repertoire anywhere, the “New World” is universally recognized for its rich melodies and spirit, largely influenced by Native American and African-American spirituals he encountered during his 3-year stay in America. As well, his native Czech influences are sprinkled throughout, suggesting a degree of homesickness, despite the exhilaration he felt here.

The four-movement work is one sumptuous section after the other, offering extraordinarily lyrical moments, moments of high energy and spirit, and moments of transformative emotion, the latter expressed in the “Largo.” Likely the most recognizable melody in the world by sound if not by name, the segment is seemingly simple on the surface but, in its depth, musically complex in emotion. Hymes and musicians embraced it, delivering a soulful and sensitive sounding that, along with the splendid rendering of the remaining segments, made this opening concert a rewarding occasion.

Shulson, a Williamsburg resident, has been covering the arts for over 40 years. He makes a guest appearance in Margaret Truman's "Murder at the Opera."

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