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San Antonio Symphony, Macelaru, Simonyan

An Armenian soul

May 26, 2012

A beautiful sound, limitless technique and intelligent musicianship are almost commonplace among young violin virtuosi these days. But to hear an important concerto played with absolute conviction, as though the violinist were telling his own story? That’s rare, and precious.

And that’s what we heard when Mikhail Simonyan essayed Aram Khatchaturian’s Violin Concerto with the San Antonio Symphony under guest conductor Cristian Macelaru, May 25 in the Majestic Theater. The orchestra opened with Mikhail Glinka’s sprightly overture to the opera “Ruslan and Ludmila” and closed with Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3. (Mr. Macelaru was called in just a few days before the concert to substitute for the ailing Alondra de la Parra.)

Mr. Simonyan was born in Novosibersk in 1985, but he has lived in New York since 1999. His mother was Russian, his father Armenian, and in an interview with Laurie Niles on violinist.com he said, “My soul is 100 percent Armenian.”
As is the soul of the Khatchaturian concerto, composed after a 1939 sojourn in Armenia. The composer was born in 1903 near Tbilisi, now part of Georgia but then controlled by Armenia, and his homeland’s folk idioms figure prominently in the concerto.

To have an Armenian soul unavoidably entails a cultural memory of the Armenian genocide, one of the most horrific mass killings in human history, perpetrated by the Ottoman Turks during and after World War I.  Indeed, Mr. Simonyan imbued the concerto’s central slow movement with a deep sadness verging on sacred silence -- no violinist in my experience has been more compelling at pianissimo -- and he gave the skipping motif in the opening allegro a nervous, obsessive quality suggestive of fear.

When the score called for technical brilliance, Mr. Simonyan was amply prepared for it, but the most remarkable feats of this performance were the long sustained notes, which became whole paragraphs of shifting color, immensely expressive despite a very narrow vibrato. These occurred both in the slow movement and in the long first-movement cadenza, a ruminative piece that the violinist commissioned from young Russian composer Artur Avanesov to replace Khatchaturian’s own “showy” original.

Mr. Simonyan's instrument, made by Christophe Landon in 2010, produced a distinctive sound, at once sweet and tart, with a nice grain and slightly hard-edged. The sound was beautiful, but not in the conventional way. The important thing is that it responded like a champion, allowing the violinist very precise control of color and pitch inflections.

Mr. Macelaru, currently assistant conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, is a Romanian native whose teachers included former San Antonio Symphony music director Larry Rachleff at Rice University.

As one might expect from a Rachleff product, Mr. Macelaru got generally precise ensemble from the orchestra (though there were some problems of coordination with the soloist), and he knew how to carry off the theatrical gestures. He got a big, muscular sound from the orchestra, but (unlike Mr. Rachleff) at the cost of refinement.  He took the “Ruslan and Ludmila” overture at a moderate pace but infused it with plenty of life.

Copland’s Third Symphony, from 1946, directly quotes his earlier “Fanfare for the Common Man” and has many allusions to the ballet “Appalachian Spring.” But for all its folkish, triadic Americana, this symphony also shows the influence of Dmitri Shostakovich. That influence was especially evident in this performance, while the lighter, wittier passages were less convincing. On the whole, it was an effective performance, however, and the Copland, like the Khatchaturian concerto, earned a wildly enthusiastic ovation.

Mike Greenberg

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