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Review: Guest violinist supplies emotional heart to Britt opening

From the very first phrases, Saint-Saëns' Violin Concerto No. 3 in B Minor came to gorgeous life Friday with the sweet tones of Chee-Yun's Stradivarius.

The violinist, the guest of conductor Peter Bay and the orchestra for the opening night of the Britt Orchestra's 2010 classical season, was everything her notices said she would be as, in a long gown, her dark hair pulled back, she approached the perennially popular violin concerto with a vibrant mix of energy and lyricism.

The concerto, while lacking the muscle of, say, Tschaikovsky, is a good showcase for her, with its mix of lightning runs and sweet, slow parts, and Chee-Yun brought a fierce elegance to both the movement's warm, emotional passages and its fireworks.

In the second movement, her violin seemed almost to mimic the human voice. But the expressiveness of her playing perhaps reached its apex in the fiery third movement.

There is a grounded quality in Chee-Yun's playing. No matter how high the energy, she eschewed the overly dramatic physical posturing favored by some players these days.

When the audience wouldn't let her off the stage, the violinist played Fritz Kreisler's delightful "Recitativo and Scherzo" as an encore.

In addition to a busy performance schedule, Chee-Yun is now a professor of violin and artist in residence at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.

Bay and the orchestra opened the evening with Dvorak's brief but stirring "My Homeland," Op. 62. Written as a prelude for a patriotic play, the piece is consciously nationalistic, throwing in "quotes" from folk tunes here, and a number that would become the Czech national anthem there. It moved swiftly from a rather sedate opening to the bucolic to the thrilling.

If Chee-Yun's playing was the emotional heart of the evening, Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 in D Minor offered the headiest moments. The symphony was written to pacify Josef Stalin (whose bad side artists did not want to be on) after several modernist works by the composer that the dictator considered "decadent." To today's ear it still sounds a bit abstract to satisfy the dictates of Socialist Realism, but it was a great success, so the composer got away with it.

The first movement opened with a strenuous theme in the strings that would return in the later movements. A second theme introduced a contrast that led, after variations, to a harsh climax. The movement ended on a note of ambiguity.

In the second movement, the first theme returned, this time with bravado, and the horns led the way, like something out of Mahler. In contrast, the melodious third movement was marked by an almost complete absence of brass. The first theme returned, this time with a sombre turn. The final movement had a martial quality that harkened back to the first. After a quiet interlude, the percussion showed the way to a grand, triumphant finale.

Shostakovich is said to have told his biographer long after Stalin's death that Symphony No. 5 was an apology to Stalin that he didn't really mean, raising the unusual spectre of an ironic symphony. While there is a certain regimented or plodding quality in a few places — it could be the soundtrack for those propaganda films of workers running to their tractors — the overall effect to the 21st century ear remains heroic and exciting, a grand kick-off to the season.

Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at varble.bill@gmail.com.