Classical music folks have so few mainstream movies about their world that most such films have the shelf life of classics, whether they deserve it or not. The 1998 film
The Red Violin
(beloved by some, but not by me) enjoys sustained visibility partly due to the concert works that John Corigliano has made from his Oscar-winning film score - one explanation for why Swarthmore's Lang Concert Hall was packed for Orchestra 2001's Sunday performance of the piece.
Expectations were bound to run high because soloist Elizabeth Pitcairn was playing the actual red violin - the so-called Mendelssohn Stradivarius - that inspired the film about the history of the centuries-old instrument and its owners. But the performance had no disappointments.
Describing any violin's sound usually devolves into vague cliches, so I'll resort to a comparison: Wagnerian soprano Kirsten Flagstad. Like her, the violin's sound was large but never hard or artificially imposing. No matter how deeply Pitcairn played into the strings, the limits of the violin's amplitude were never felt. Also, she played with a level of identification that suggested she wasn't performing so much as speaking through Corigliano's near-perfect balance of head and heart - with hearty support from Orchestra 2001 and music director James Freeman.
Though the orchestra is a collective of flexible size, Sunday's concert had one of the larger and more solid contingents of the year, as demanded by three concertos that preceded Corigliano. The concert's first half was occupied by two works by Russian-born, Philadelphia-based David Finko - Moses: A Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1971) and the Piccolo Concerto (2006) - demonstrating a long but traceable journey traveled by this composer. The former concerto is full of broad statements expressed with an Old Testament fierceness by lower brass instruments while the later work is more fragmented and questioning, not unlike the late works of Alfred Schnittke.
The strong personality that comes through Finko's music is quite unlike any - even when expressed in such aesthetically opposed ways. The performances were strong and uncompromising, with the always-excellent Marcantionio Barone as soloist in the first concerto and in the second, with Mimi Stillman, whose concentration amid such musically splintered circumstances was heroic.
The piece that suffered from the one-concerto-too-many syndrome was Andrew Rudin's new Concerto for Viola, Strings, Harp, Piano and Percussion. You felt typical concerto events coming long before they arrived (particularly for ears well-versed in Shostakovich) as well as a sense that the musical destinations had been well-explored by others. The mode of expression grew more personal (and engaging) as the piece progressed and viola soloist Brett Deubner brought needed depth to the more ruminating cadenzas. But just because contemporary composers have every right to brood doesn't mean one wants to hear so much of it in one sitting. I'd like to hear Rudin's piece again, but in a very different setting.