A “heroic, undaunted performance” in San Francisco Symphony debut
November 2018 - San Francisco Chronicle
A performance of Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto is nothing to take lightly, either for the performers or the audience. The music digs in deep, across four weighty movements and one of the composer’s trademark massive cadenzas for the soloist, and there are challenges for everyone involved.
In her impressive showing with the San Francisco Symphony on Thursday, Nov. 8 in Davies Symphony Hall, violinist Karen Gomyo didn’t insult our intelligence by making the thing seem easy. On the contrary — she matched the composer step for demanding step, producing a rendition that gleamed with the sweat of honest labor.
Together with guest conductor Jakub Hrusa, Gomyo — a Japanese-born virtuoso who now lives in Berlin — dived into Shostakovich’s showpiece with an obvious respect for both the technical and interpretive difficulties ahead. The combination of craggy rhetoric, capacious formal scale and sheer finger-busting passagework that infuses this concerto means that anyone can go astray at any moment.
Yet, by the time the piece drew to a close nearly 40 minutes later, Gomyo and Hrusa in partnership had conferred an air of triumph on the proceedings. Shostakovich’s expansive lines of thought, which can often seem discursive and even meandering in the wrong hands, emerged here with a welcome sense of formal tautness; the composer’s acrid sensibilities sounded inviting without losing their essential character.
Gomyo’s playing boasts a bold, steely beauty, which at least in this context made few concessions to traditional notions of lyricism or expressive warmth. (Her encore, a lovely account of the fourth of Astor Piazzolla’s “Six Tango Etudes,” offered a more overtly empathetic voice, though even here she made sure to keep the rhythms crisp and muscular.)
In the concerto’s broad opening movement, which the composer labeled “Nocturne,” Gomyo spun out long-breathed melodies with unflinching forthrightness, as if encouraging the listener to revel in the music’s dark, sinewy textures. The bustling scherzo — equally dark, even more corrosive — got a ferocious, precise reading.
But the glory of the performance came in the robust third-movement Passacaglia, which is also the concerto’s center of gravity. In this succession of variations on a theme, Gomyo brought out one character of the music after another, engaging in eloquent counterpoint with other members of the orchestra, delivering the solo part with insight and tact, and finally settling in to give a bravura account of the huge solo cadenza.