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[whitespace] Sheer, Youthful Pleasure: Guest violinist Sarah Chang brought a big romantic tone to her performance of Mozart's Concerto in A.

Photograph by Dori Seda

A Mozart Marvel

Soloist Sarah Chang's turn at the SJ Symphony was full of youthful exuberance

By Scott MacClelland

I think it was Cyndi Lauper who confided that girls just "wanna have fun." She must have had Sarah Chang in mind. Hearing the 18-year-old violin virtuoso play a concerto by a 19-year-old composer (name of Wolfgang A. Mozart) last Friday at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts only proved that both teenagers were out for sheer, youthful pleasure.

Chang's approach to the Concerto in A was arch and full of mischief. Since Mozart's other four violin concertos, composed in the same year, evince similar spirit, the message is clear. When played as Chang did, their tunes and inventions are revealed as one cheeky joke after another. (To play them with seriousness of purpose, as so many older violinists do, not only misses that point but also makes them sound tediously insignificant.)

In this San Jose Symphony performance, conductor Leonid Grin began the piece with a smoothly deliberate pace. Then Chang waded in, and immediately spirits picked up. From then on, Chang was in charge, alternately tempting Grin with a big romantic tone and lushly seductive vibrato, then teasing him with coquettish turns of phrase and saucy retards.

By the concerto's end, all eyes were glued to the impudent youngster whose star is now firmly established. (She has just released new CDs of the Goldmark and Strauss concertos on EMI Classics.) As it turned out, Chang was not the only teenager who held the audience in the palm of her hand that night. So did 15-year-old Matthew Jason Neff of Scotts Valley, the soloist for Das himmlische Leben, the song that constitutes the finale of Mahler's Fourth Symphony.

There can be little question that the purity and innocence of a pubescent boy soprano is exactly what the composer was looking for. (The song was originally set by Mahler in the collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn.)

While small of sound against the large orchestra, Neff absolutely nailed the tricky rhythms and often awkward voice-leading of this childhood vision. As the symphonic tissue wound down to its last whispering moments, the Neff soprano floated like magic before the breathless silence of a transfixed audience.

In the work, Neff was actually the dew on the rose. Grin's conception of the complex score was extraordinary, as interpretively fine as anything he has done so far this season. Mahler requires not only considerable style insights and a keen mastery of details but also a director who empathizes with his grandiose ego. Happily, this rare combination came together for this production.

Likewise, the orchestra rose with the occasion, its dozens of concertante solos coloring and flavoring the work with a full panoply of confectioners spices and hues. While concertmaster Robin Mayforth got to play the high-profile fairy tale role of Freund Hain (courtesy her scordatura fiddle), the myriad of Mahler's countless orchestral prestidigitations were similarly savored, not least the four unison flutes in the first movement and trumpeting oboes in the third.

Grin opened his program with Chen Yi's Momentum, a 10-minute discovery of timbres, layers, washes and angles for large orchestra including exotic percussion. Composed in 1998, the work frames its stunning effects with quiet piccolo and flute tunes on a Chinese pentatonic scale.

Tonality is not an issue here, neither affecting the work nor perturbing its audience, which in this case displayed considerable enthusiasm at its conclusion. (Atonal music is well over a century old and has rarely troubled audiences--witness Liszt, Debussy, Scriabin, Strauss--unless someone made a philosophy or religion of it.)

Chen Yi is not only unafraid of vast sonorities but knows how to wield them for clarity even at high volume. The work was as vivid as the Mahler symphony, but lacking "thematic development," counted instead on broad strokes of intense color saturation punctuated by delicate tracings of harp, woodwind and percussion.

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From the February 10-16, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. MetroActive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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