It is not easy to compete with a Mozart symphony, which was also on the programme for the Austin Symphony concert last night, but Geneva Lewis’ performance of a violin concerto raised it to a level where they saw eye to eye.
I use the word competition because Lewis, who has already several major awards, told the audience before the concert that is really just concentrates on her delivery of music without striving to win any particular competition. Her awards, by the way, include the Grand Prize of the 2020 Concert Artists Guild Competition, and the Borletti-Buitoni Trust Award, bestowed this year.
Speaking of the Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64, by Mendelssohn, which has become a staple of the classical repertoire, Lewis described how her approach to the piece makes it unique. “It’s not necessarily a conscious thought ‘how is this going to be different?’ or ‘what is me about this? I think the sound of the violin and the violinist is as unique as one’s singing voice. I think about most music in somewhat abstract terms – I don’t necessarily come with a fleshed-out narrative or specific words for the piece as I’m playing. I prefer to be in an undefined zone and just feel the emotions within the music. The notes on the page and the way they feel is going to be unique to every person who plays and every listener.”
Specifically on the violin concerto, Lewis enthused it “it’s so vibrant and colourful. There is this wonderful art throughout the piece. It starts off in such a turbulent, pleading manner and goes through the sweetest of tunes with moments of complete serenity and peace. Towards the end it is the most sparkling and nymph-like effervescent phenomena. I hope that by the piece comes to a close it should fell like you’ve gone on such a journey!”
Lewis began her journey with the aid of a remarkable instrument: a violin by Zosimo Bergonzi of Cremona, made about 1770. The concerto opens with a sweet melody that quickly morphs into an impassioned plea that the orchestra responds to with gusto. Over the next few minutes the tension builds as the sound of the violin gets ever louder.
The violin then strikes out on its own in a solo exploration of trepidation mixed with winder. This breathes new life into the orchestra which shakes off its catatonic stance in a state of sober realism – the realization that the single instrument under Lewis’ command has taken full control of the narrative. Following this directive, the violin reaches new heights on the musical scale. It literally takes flight and departs for a while, only to return with a heart-melting melody, one of the finest ever composed: Mendelssohn at his peak.
All of this is merely a prelude to a long and deeply thoughtful passage with ends abruptly to herald a lighthearted ending that served to captivate the audience with a flurry of rapid notes by Lewis. The rapturous standing ovation she received was certainly one of the greatest I have witnessed at an Austin Symphony Orchestra performance.
The concert opened with a 2006 composition, Strum, by Kessie Montgomery. Like most modern classical efforts, I found it annoying and disruptive. Much better was a classical effort by Paul McCartney of The Beatles. The delightful Spiral was composed in 1991. This orchestral version premiered in 1997 (it was orchestrated by Richard Bennett, as McCartney cannot read music!).
The pastoral setting of Spiral is evident at once, enhanced by the harp. The music builds majestically to a plateau that affords a panoramic view of the English landscape. There is no ‘built environment’ here to impede or interfere with the pastoral experience. A flute floats over the surface established by the strings, a figurative wafting on air of the spirit of the land. “This blessed plot, this earth, this England,” as Shakespeare said better than anyone.
The iconic Symphony No. 39 in E-flat major (K.543) by Mozart concluded this superior concert. It was composed in 1788 and together with two other symphonies composed that year represent the ultimate expression of Mozart’s orchestral music.
The Austin Symphony orchestra clearly relished getting its teeth into this one. A galloping exuberance characterizes the opening. A prime example of Mozart’s sparkling brilliancy. The second movement opens with a tentative, delicate melody. With halting steps, it progresses to a confident but refined position of authority. The 3rd exhibits a workmanlike approach at first but develops into an outdoor promenade where one might see sunlight glinting off the plumed hats of ladies and the gold piping on the uniforms of Austrian officers. The symphony ends with enough flourishes to satisfy the most ardent fans of Mozart.
Overall, a superlative effort by our symphony orchestra, and its guest artist. Geneva Lewis. It is being performed again tonight, Nov. 19, 2022
Visit the website for more performances: austinsymphony.org