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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, March 26, 2002

Violinist, orchestra excel, but their composers don't

By Gregory Shepherd

The Honolulu Symphony Orchestra encountered its first real speed bump of the season on Sunday with an entire program given over to second-rate music. While all three of the pieces were played exceptionally well, the high level of the performance wasn't enough to rescue the works from their own mediocrity.

Honolulu Symphony Orchestra with Sarah Chang

• 7:30 tonight

• Blaisdell Concert Hall

• $55 — $15; 792-2000

Sarah Chang is universally recognized as one of the foremost young violinists of the day, and her reputation is partially based on the volcanic passion she brings to the works she performs. But a successful performance also demands that the work itself be infused with passion, and this is sadly not the case with Karl Goldmark's Violin Concerto in A Minor. While the concerto is well-crafted and makes all the right gestures in the direction of deep emotion, it is essentially an uninspired simulacrum of a great work, as if the composer set out to compose something weighty but didn't have the compositional chops to pull it off. That left poor Chang on Sunday playing her heart out on a work that had none.

The pedestrian themes of the first movement were admittedly woven together well, but the cloth of the movement was polyester, and not very good polyester at that. The slow second movement tried to elicit pathos but got yawns instead, and the cadenza, while played dazzlingly well by Chang, was merely a compendium of virtuosic tricks.

In a moment of honest self-appraisal, Tchaikovsky called his Symphony No. 1 a "sweet sin of my youth," owing to the work's immaturity of expression and paltry thematic palette. The boredom continues almost unabated throughout all four of its movements, and especially tedious is the way Tchai-kovsky repeats uninteresting ideas again and again even though there was nothing to intrigue the ear on the first hearing. Music reviewers usually make little notes during a concert, just to remember the salient points of a performance, and mine read as follows: "1st movement: thin gruel." "2nd movement: a real yawner." "3rd movement: snore." "4th movement: At least he ended loud so that everybody could wake up to applaud."

Samuel Wong led the orchestra in a silk-purse performance of this sow's ear of a symphony.

The pattern repeated with Rimsky-Korsakov's "Russian Easter Overture," five minutes of substance that is stretched out to 15. This was a symptom of the program as a whole.

The orchestra performers blended wonderfully throughout the afternoon despite the material they had to play. One was reminded of how much better they sound when playing decent music.

Gregory Shepherd has been The Advertiser's classical music critic since 1987.