Violinist Benjamin Beilman Brings Joy to Berkeley Symphony Season Opener

By Joshua Kosman
October 5, 2018

Vibrant conducting, a modern orchestral classic and a soloist of truly remarkable gifts — all the pieces fell together in Zellerbach Hall on Thursday, Oct. 4, to impart a splendid sheen to the Berkeley Symphony’s season opener. Even if only half of the program was designed to instill feelings of joy, those feelings were enough to cast the entire evening in a mostly rosy light.

Presiding over the event was Ming Luke, one of the four guest conductors vying this season to succeed Joana Carneiro as the orchestra’s music director. He made a strong case for himself in leading off the evening with a taut, lively and impeccably controlled account of Shostakovich’s “Festive Overture,” and concluded with Ravel’s “La Valse” in a darkly sinuous rendition.

But the centerpiece of the program — and the part that will linger longest in a listener’s memory — was Jennifer Higdon’s wonderful Violin Concerto, with the talented young American violinist Benjamin Beilman as the soloist. This was a seemingly perfect combination of material and performers.

The concerto was premiered in 2009 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Music, and a recording featuring soloist Hilary Hahn (for whom the piece was written) promptly demonstrated why. It’s a 35-minute explosion of ingratiating melody, ingenious craft and opportunities for display.

And although Hahn’s artistic personality is etched throughout the score, Beilman put his own spin on every measure. Together with Luke, he shaped the imposing opening movement – which accounts for nearly half the work’s total time — into a logical and engrossing series of musical paragraphs, punctuated by a ferocious cadenza and a gentle, exquisitely beautiful close.

In the central slow movement, titled “Chaconni,” Beilman deployed his resplendent string tone to deliver long, arching phrases that curled in on themselves in ingenious ways, and the brisk, brief finale popped energetically. At every juncture, he brought a blend of interpretive subtlety and technical boldness — qualities that reappeared in his encore, a potent account of the Largo from Bach’s C-Major Violin Sonata.

Luke’s program was neatly divided into light and dark halves, with the sunny optimism of Shostakovich and Higdon giving way after intermission to the turbulence of Anna Clyne’s “Night Ferry” and the Ravel.

“Night Ferry” — a 20-minute assemblage of scurrying minor scales and densely wrought orchestral chords that finally surface into a pale evocation of daylight — isn’t a piece with a lot of secrets to disclose, but Luke gave the music a sympathetic airing that leaned hard on its rhythmic intensity. Best of all, the decision to go directly into the Ravel without pause created a telling sort of symmetry, as if the two composers were offering complementary thoughts on similar experiences.

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