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Musician Impossible

November 11, 2008

Every so often I come across a musical event that defies all logic. That was the case Sunday afternoon as Benjamin Shwartz conducted the San Francisco Symphony's Youth Orchestra and a 13-year-old boy soloist through a performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto that would be the envy of any leading virtuoso. Born in October 1995, Stephen Kim left many of the audience in Davies Symphony Hall in a roaring state of astonishment.
Shwartz opened the concert with Rossini's La gazza ladra Overture, before conducting the Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64. Following intermission, we heard three excerpts from Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen: "Forest Murmurs" from Siegfried; and "Siegfried's Rhine Journey" plus "Siegfried's Death and Funeral Music" from Gotterdammerung. In the latter case, that seems to me an odd way to close a concert. A Wagnerian funeral piece?

Sprouting from a violinistic family, Kim began his studies of the instrument at the age of 3. He made his debut at age 10 with the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra and has since played in a number of student and professional orchestras, garnering a caboodle of prizes along the way. Indeed, this solo performance was earned by his winning the SFSYO's Concerto Competition. Talent? Obviously, but in such quantity as to set a new standard of expectations from youths.

Playing a three-quarter-size violin, to accommodate his smaller hands, Kim created a remarkable level of power that filled the hall with a perfectly mellow sound. His intonation, even in the highest positions of the fingerboard, was spot on.

Kim clearly knew no fear of Mendelssohn's technically tricky passagework. Near the end of the first movement's cadenzas, for example, there's a string of fast spiccato arpeggios. The trick is to keep them rhythmically accurate as the bow literally skips back and forth across the four strings. He accomplished this flawlessly.
Justly Praised to the Skies
But hold on, there's more to this than mere technical propriety. Kim's maturity of phrasing, not unlike Yehudi Menuhin's, was the very soul of Romantic tastefulness: richly eloquent, often original in applying rubato to melodic lines, and passionately involved throughout. Now, it's beyond me how a boy who turned 13 only last month can even have a clue to what such mature passion is about. His multiple bows were greeted by standing ovations and more flowers that he could comfortably carry off stage.

Rossini's Overture also went exceedingly well, highlighted by lots of subtle comic touches, as well as seriously elegant playing from the strings and woodwinds. Mind you, Gazza ladra is no snap to play. It requires a lot of technical fireworks in the orchestration, yet when it works, the effect is a sonic charm machine.

That brings us to the downers, the Wagner excerpts. There had been one or two minor horn bloopers in the Rossini and Mendelssohn pieces, but nothing serious. The young lady who played the offstage horn solo in the "Rhine Journey" gave an excellent performance, replete with the final high C. The strings too were fine, being well-matched in timbre and keenly in control of the dynamics, especially for Wagner's ultrasoft passages. The various woodwind birdcall imitations during the Forest music came off like a lark, always with clear delineations when they turned contrapuntal, piling up on one another. No problems with any of that.

But the heavy brass kept falling off its normal standards. Trumpets played admirably, even the player confronted with the unwieldy bass trumpet. There were, however, far too many raspberries coming out of the horn section.

Trombones blared their way through climaxes as if playing "Anything you can do, I can do louder." Goodness, this isn't some football field. Worse was their playing of those foreboding chords that open the Rhine journey piece, where the instrumentalists simply could not seem to deal with the intonation necessary for Wagner's chromatics.

That Shwartz took unusually slow tempos for most of these pieces was no help. Believe it or not, that increases their difficulty. Conductors have sometimes been able to pull this off by sheer dint of intensity — notably so in the case of Otto Klemperer. The larger truth, though, is that in this case Shwartz had thrown repertoire at his orchestra that was unrealistic for them.

I've heard the SFSYO, including this present group, pull off extremely virtuoso music with brilliance; but after all, there are limits. It's not an orchestra made up entirely of young Stephen Kims.

Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for Chicago American and the Asahi Evening News.