Violinist Dan Zhu was the talk of the town in classical music circles these past couple of weeks and his solo appearance at Texas Music Festival's final hurrah promised a bombastic concert no one wanted to pass up. Though I was more full of adrenalin for Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra and, to a lesser extent, Paul Dukas' The Sorcerer's Apprentice, the glitzy Hollywood-esque melodies of Erich Korngold's Violin Concerto have enough grit to whet the appetites of seasoned listeners and appeal to newbies.
That Josep Caballé-Domenech was waving his baton was of personal interest. I had met the witty and tad zany Spanish conductor while we were both students at the Aspen Music Festival and School in the late 1990s, a time when I, as an instrumentalist, engaged in the accepted ritual of hazing anyone in the conducting academy.
It had been 13 years since the Chinese violinist was in Houston, back then as a student at TMF's intensive month-long summer program. In 1999, he may have been the youngest fiddler of the fleet and he may not have had much English vocabulary with which to communicate, but Zhu turned heads and ears with his feisty artistry, turbo-charged technique and fearless attitude.
He's a nice friendly guy who tends to smile frequently. He celebrated his 30th birthday on Tuesday.
His musical approach and easy-going character have served him well — he won Texas Music Festival's concerto competition — and they're helping his career today, which has been partly powered by a huge endorsement from one of classical music's greats and one of this city's beloved Houston Symphony maestros, Christoph Eschenbach.
If fireworks are what turns you all hot and bothered musically, then Zhu is your kind of violinist.
Eschenbach and Zhu's latest collaboration was at the Kennedy Center in March with a program of five Mozart violin sonatas. On July 20 at the Tanglewood Music Center, Eschenbach will direct Zhu's debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a Leonard Bernstein tribute playbill. For that significant occasion Zhu turns to the Serenade for Solo Violin, Strings, Harp and Percussion (after Plato's "Symposium"), a concerto which foreshadows many of the melodic themes that would appear in West Side Story, premiered three years later.
Raw skills and a musical temper tantrum
With all that hype and history setting the stage for the Texas Music Festival finale, the audience was poised to be blown away.
Call it a phenomenon of failed expectations, though Zhu's musical temper tantrum did satisfy on a few levels, it felt flat for someone with that many credits to his name.
If fireworks are what turns you all hot and bothered musically, then Zhu is your kind of violinist. He performed with two colors, bright and brighter, alongside two dynamic levels, loud and louder, verging on strained, pinched and forced despite the innate capabilities of his 1763 Carlo Antonio Testore violin, on loan from the Alexis Gregory Foundation.
Accenting his way through what could (should) have been gorgeous flowing melodic lines, his Korngold had little of the lush cinematic tenor that renders this concerto familiar even for those who haven't heard it before.
Moreover, when he miscalculated a change in hand positions, something that happened repeatedly, what ensued was a painful sequence of out-of-tune riffs that, while they projected easily through the thick, lush orchestration, they did so for the wrong reasons. A short duet with concertmaster Xiao Wang, this year's winner of the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Young Artist Competition, offered a brief respite from the otherwise aesthetic chaos with Wang's tone a reminder of sound violin playing. Both Wang and Zhu studied with Lucie Robert at the Manhattan School of Music in New York City.
That's not my kind of violinist, and I would suspect it isn't Eschenbach's either. Perhaps he was having an off day?
The brass gave it their all, though the violas held their own and took the prize for lustiest section, if there was ever a trophy for such an accomplishment.
In a private recital at the Asia Society Texas Center recently, Zhu had similar intonation problems, though his phrasing showed more maturity than in this Korngold's solo performance.
No doubt Zhu has superhuman raw skills, but they are in dire need of refinement. That's typically what happens in school as professional life doesn't allot time to polish technique. Now that he is out of college, his career path is a case of "time will tell."
And the orchestra
On a positive note, señor Josep Caballé-Domenech had that rare knack of balancing roles between that of being a teacher, a friend and a demanding musician to the orchestral fellows, in rehearsals using humor and descriptive analogies just as much as stern and directive instruction to affix his interpretation atop of the two magnum opus, in addition to ensuring 1) the students had fun 2) they took risks and 3) they performed what was on the page — what the composer intended — with passion.
Literally jumping off the podium, he drew magic in The Sorcerer's Apprentice. Amid wicked brass fanfares, virtuosic wind passages and mischievously hoarse bassoons, one glockenspiel wizard stood out as a one who could zip through rapid falling arpeggios.
Though I can't genuinely report that the Bartok was flawless — entrances weren't solid and complicated meter changes caught some instrumentalists by surprise — Caballé-Domenech chose his battles wisely and roused the best possible interpretation of the Concerto for Orchestra given the parameters.
The woodwinds played with gutsy abandonment, their respective solos and duets in the Giuoco Delle Coppie spilled over with flair and personality. A yearning piccolo in the Elegia rocked the high register in the Finale, where the violins were relentless, unstoppable machines. The brass gave it their all, though the violas held their own and took the prize for lustiest section, if there was ever a trophy for such an accomplishment.