The opening words of the Chorus in Henry V sprang to mind as, in the second row in St Mary’s tonight I was transfixed by the BBC Scottish Symphony’s performance of Menotti’s Violin Concerto in A minor as part of the Lammermuir Festival. The accoustic setting of St Mary’s gave the music richness and depth and being in the second row felt like performing in the orchestra itself.
Not being an opera buff, I was unfamiliar with Menotti but this scintillatingly virtuoso concerto just caught fire under the energetic but absolutely focussed performance of Jennifer Koh, who has studied it and recorded it with the composer. Of its 1952 premiere, the New York Telegram wrote “It is a fresh and vigorous piece of music, overflowing with energy and melody and whatever else it takes to complete a three-movement concerto without becoming apologetic.”
But it was Koh’s playing that made it incandescent; her body language was vibrant with passion, sometimes rocking to sweetly tease out Menotti’s poetic writing, sometimes, with her short, dark hair alive and electric, infusing the piece’s dramatic statements with a fearsome vigour. Whether whispering or pounding her bow, she maintained a sublime tone from her 1727 Stradivarius that she handled as if a part of her.
Partly composed near Gifford in East Lothian, the concerto is a piece steeped in Romantic tradition and thoroughly removed from the avant-garde learnings of the past century. I am delighted that the Lammermuir Festival appears again to have been a roaring success but, framed as Menotti was tonight by definitive performances of Ravels’ William Tell and Dvorak’s 9th in the acoustic heaven of St Mary’s, this world-class event must surely have been its high point.
Ms Koh has been championing Menotti for years; this one performance demonstrated why.