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Florida Orchestra shines, but concert still all about violinist Tianwa Yang

Tianwa Yang joined the Florida Orchestra for three bay area performances, the final of which is tonight at Ruth Eckerd Hall.
Tianwa Yang joined the Florida Orchestra for three bay area performances, the final of which is tonight at Ruth Eckerd Hall.
Published Nov. 15, 2015

TAMPA — What makes a great violinist?

Is it the quality of tone, superior interpretation, technical mastery, something else? Whatever that "It" factor is, Tianwa Yang has it, in the eyes of the music world. On Friday at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, she showed why.

The Beijing native, who at 13 became the youngest violinist to release recordings of the 24 Paganini caprices, is now a few years shy of 30 and still growing in critical acclaim. At the Straz, (with other performances Saturday in St. Petersburg and tonight in Clearwater) Yang led the Florida Orchestra in the Brahms' Violin Concerto, one the composer called his "most melancholic" work.

Brahms composed it in the late 1870s, in his early 40s, at a time when he was beginning to emerge from the shadow of Beethoven.

The concerto is a showcase for violin soloists and a test for an orchestra to respond in kind. It begins with orchestra alone, the main movement soothing but a bit staid. The soloist enters several minutes in, a vigorous counterpoint on top of the melody.

Yang's palette is vibrant. She handles every part of the instrument, on every level of intensity. She attacks entrances fearlessly and stretches interpretation to something beyond a command of the material.

The orchestra dutifully fills in the gaps created for it. That intentional clash in the first movement with the soloist is removed by the third.

Brahms endowed the final movement with a gypsy flavor that once again can bring out the virtuosity of a superb violinist. It's one reason for the concerto's reputation as one of the 19th century's greatest.

Yang waited during the segments when she didn't play, staring at a spot on the floor, occasionally kicking aside the hem of her gown so she wouldn't step on it. It is hard to believe the sounds she produces are all in a day's work, but with her it's true.

The audience at the Straz did not try to wring an encore from her, perhaps because the brilliance of the music is still more mature than showy or flamboyant. It was their loss. (If you don't believe me, search "Tianwa Yang" on YouTube and watch her play Ysaye Violin Sonata No. 3 in D minor.)

The concert began with Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, composed by Samuel Barber in 1955. The piece follows part of the story of Medea of Greek mythology, who, in the version told by Euripides, murdered her children in a fit of jealousy. Commissioned by choreographer Martha Graham, Dance of Vengeance clearly feels like a story being told. Its furious conclusion was the concert's most dramatic single moment.

It ended with the Enigma Variations of British composer Sir Edward Elgar (1899). The 14 variations are each dedicated to one or another of the composer's friends, people who pulled him out of the mood swings that characterized his emotional life.

The meaning of the moderately slow Enigma beginning is somewhat more cryptic, but is thought to be a musical self-portrait. It might be one of England's most emblematic compositions, regularly played on Armistice Day. Full of humor and warmth, it's also a favorite of music director Michael Francis, who played it often with the London Symphony Orchestra.

It travels well.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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