Nights like the one the Curtis Institute of Music had Tuesday - in which everything is going right and everyone in the room seems to feel it - are dear in the life of arts institutions, especially in tough times. The Curtis orchestra, in its first concert of the season, played with a magnificent assuredness. Much of the city's arts and civic leadership was in Verizon Hall, buzzing about the school's new dorm and orchestra rehearsal hall quickly taking shape a few blocks away.
And you couldn't help noticing that while all this spoke gamely of the future, in the audience were teachers such as Eleanor Sokoloff, charismatic Curtis piano pedagogue for nearly 75 years and living evidence that its new leadership still values the conservatory's lineage.
Of course, none of this would have mattered had the level of playing not been so high. JoAnn Falletta, music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, brought clarity to the Violin Concerto of Behzad Ranjbaran, order to Strauss' Don Juan, and, to Rimsky-Korsakov's Sheherazade, a surprising and lucid reanimation.
I never tire of hearing Sheherazade, in part since I don't hear it much anymore. Once a staple, it now shows up less often in concert halls. The work's youthful narrative is ideally suited to this orchestra; it asks for virtuosity, and the ensemble repays it in the form of ecstasy.
Falletta's interpretation was self-effacing. She provided a stable framework of tempos, occasionally veering away for expressive purposes, but mostly leaving individuality to unfold in the dozens of instrumental solos. William Short was not merely technically all there in the work's famous dancerly bassoon solo, but also highly individual in a way that would be notable even in a professional setting. Clarinetist Ruokai Chen placed a subtle elongation in tempo at the top of a run, transforming an excerpt lick into an artistic statement. All throughout the piece, concertmaster Joel Link, a fourth-year student, projected warmth and stability in notoriously treacherous solos.
Don Juan had great structure, though in the details was perhaps slightly prim and proper for the subject at hand. But Falletta was just right in Ranjbaran's Violin Concerto. The Tehran-born Juilliard composer might be thought of as music's magical realist. In this work - as well as in his "Persian Trilogy" - a passage can be going along at midlevel dissonance when, as if a light suddenly refracted, the orchestration turns lustrous and the harmonies seductive. You might hear film scoring in his sound. The composer himself identifies Persian modes and rhythms as inspiration, as well as the kamancheh, a traditional Persian bowed instrument.
But for the soloist, the more relevant cousins in the repertoire to this 2003 work are Barber and Korngold, whose spirit Elissa Lee Koljonen evoked in the formidable passage work. Koljonen, a 1994 Curtis graduate who studied with Aaron Rosand, is also Mrs. Roberto Diaz, wife of the director of Curtis, but her appearance on this program was no concession to family ties. She is apart from all her connections a violinist of immense presence. Technique is a given, but with a purpose. Case in point: the many fleeting moments of bending pitch and changing tone for expressive purposes. This was a knowing audience, so it might have detected her exquisite timing and precision. Or perhaps all it sensed was a violinist of considerable soul.