Saturday, May 26 , 2018, 4:02 am | Fair 55º


Felix, Cupid Make Beautiful Music with Santa Barbara Symphony

Jennifer Koh and Nir Kabaretti lift hearts and spirits with their Valentine's Day performance.

Valentine’s Day 2009 shared a portion of Felix Mendelssohn’s 200th birthday celebration this past weekend with the Santa Barbara Symphony’s richly romantic concert at The Granada.

The composer’s Overture to Racine’s “Athalie” Op. 74, and his beloved Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in E minor, Op. 64 bookended the program. Wolgang Amadeus Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550 was the selection played between the two.

The soloist in the concerto was the popular Korean-American violinist Jennifer Koh, with Nir Kabaretti conducting. According to her biographical notes, Koh plays a 1727 Ex Grumiaux Ex General DuPont Stradivari on “generous loan” by her private sponsor.

Mendelssohn composed this pearl for his friend, Ferdinand David, a renowned violinist who premiered the concerto in 1844. Music historians write that David worked closely with Mendelssohn as the composition took shape, and the violinist is credited with creating the exquisite cadenza. This concerto is a treasure, rightly beloved of listeners and musicians alike.

Koh, 30, is a graduate of Oberlin College, where she studied violin and English literature. She is also an alumna of the Curtis Institute of Music, where she received tutelage from the great Jaime Laredo.

At Sunday’s matinee, Koh looked lovely in a dark forest green gown, and played from the start with a kind of insouciant passion. She was technically proficient, and engaged the audience with smiles, tosses of her glossy head and plenty of eye contact. This reviewer’s response was to recoil slightly, as if meeting a party guest who immediately becomes overly familiar. A bit less enthusiasm and a bit more reserve might serve Koh better than this excessive chumminess.

The program began with the Overture to “Athalie,” and this was sheer romantic delight. If they had had movies in 1845, this music would have been ideal for a large-scale, old-fashioned Hollywood epic. The horns were especially effective here.

Mendelssohn died at 38, at the height of his powers and popularity, wealthy, beloved, crowned with success. Mozart died at 35, hounded by creditors, in poor health with a wife who was even sicker, grieving the loss of one of his children. He wrote his Symphony No. 40 with only two years remaining of his own short life.

This, unlike most of Mozart’s inspired output, is a work fraught with overtones of tragedy. From the opening bars, the first movement — allegro molto appassionata — introduces a theme of dread in the strings. This, taken up in the woodwinds, falters, then resumes its edgy course.

The middle, andante, movement is perhaps even darker and more foreboding, building on minor key harmonies. It is followed by a minuetto allegretto that heightens the tension and tragic mood. The final movement, allegro assai, recapitulates the forces of the first movement, driving them to the anguished conclusion.

“Don Giovanni,” another tragic masterpiece, was met with a notable lack of enthusiasm shortly before the Symphony No. 40 was written. This could only have deepened Mozart’s torment. Who knows why a genius such as Mozart had to endure such suffering. The outcome, of course, is music that moves the soul of the listener to this day.

The orchestra and conductor Kabaretti gave a rich accounting of this work and the two Mendelssohns. The full-house audience responded with enthusiasm and gratitude that were manifestly heartfelt.

Margo Kline covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor.

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