with Zurich Chamber Orchestra
Nov. 15, Camp Concert Hall, Modlin Arts Center, University of Richmond
The British violinist Daniel Hope is not affiliated with the Yehudi Menuhin International Competition for Young Violinists, being staged in Richmond next spring, and his performance at the University of Richmond was not part of the event, in which UR is one of the sponsors and venues.
Hope’s connection to Menuhin is more personal: As a youngster, he studied and performed with Menuhin. Eleanor Hope, his mother, was Menuhin’s assistant. In this concert, Hope was joined by Switzerland’s Zurich Chamber Orchestra, an ensemble long associated with Menuhin, in a program paying tribute to the old master, sampling a 3½-century range of repertory, from J.S. Bach and Antonio Vivaldi to Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt.
The program’s opening selection, Bach’s Concerto in D minor, BWV 1043, for two violins, strings and bass continuo, was recorded in 1932 by the teenaged Menuhin with his teacher, George Enescu, today remembered as a composer, but in his time a prominent violinist. This performance, with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra’s leader (concertmaster), Willi Zimmermann, joining Hope in the lead duo, clearly echoed the 87-year-old recording, with meaty, romanticized sonority and phrasing quite unlike the “historically informed” style of Bach performance today. The prominence of the orchestra’s lower strings thickened the sound texture so much that the continuo (rhythms) of the piece dominated through much of the performance.
A similar texture prevailed in Vivaldi’s Double Concerto in A minor, RV 522 (from the collection “L’estro armonico”), enhancing the melody of its slow movement and, gratifyingly, not sapping the energy of its feverishly energetic finale.
The interpretative stance of Hope and the sound of the 21-piece string orchestra, which he has served as music director since 2016, were much better suited to the Violin Concerto in D minor of the 12-year-old Felix Mendelssohn, a string orchestration of Béla Bartók’s “Romanian Folk Dances,” and contemporary pieces by Pärt, Glass and the Lebanese-French composer Bechara El-Khoury.
Mendelssohn’s youthful works often echo Bach as clearly as they anticipate their composer’s later romantic style, and Hope and the orchestra struck that stylistic balance adeptly, the violinist emphaszing the lyricism of the solo part and the orchestra playing with a crispness and transparency of texture that had eluded the players in the Bach concerto.
Their rich, robust collective tone was applied to fine effect in Bartók’s short suite of six dances, and in their accompaniment of Hope in El-Khoury’s “Unfinished Journey,” an homage to Menuhin introduced in 2009 (its title borrowed from that of Menuhin’s autobiography). El-Khoury’s rhapsodic work, audibly reflecting the composer’s Arab-Levantine roots, is remarkably similar in mood and effect to Ernest Bloch’s Hebrew rhapsody “Schelomo.” In time, I suspect audiences may often hear them paired in concert programs.
Pärt’s “Darf ich” (“May I”) and Glass’ “Echorus” were written for Menuhin and his protégé, violinist Edna Mitchell, and first performed by them in the 1990s. Both are brief and characteristic of their composers’ styles – the Pärt austere and contemplative, the Glass driven by a simple chord progression over a syncopated rhythm. Hope and the Zurichers gave fluently stylish accounts of both works.
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This was the second concert I’ve heard since the acoustical renovation of Camp Concert Hall in the University of Richmond’s Modlin Arts Center, and the first of an orchestral performance. If the Zurich ensemble’s sound typifies that of massed strings in this space, this hall could a tricky environment. Bass string projection was very strong, while higher-register tones were prone to congestion and a rather glassy quality. The fabric baffles on the side walls were not in use in this concert; employing them could soften those higher registers, but also could make the sound even more bassy.