Sunday, February 20, 2011


February 18

A precocious talent.

Sayaka Shoji was just 16 years old when she won the prestigious Paganini Competition in 1999, the first Japanese player and the youngest person ever to do so. She doesn’t look much older now, nor any bigger. In her diminutive, delicate hands, the violin looks more like an oversized viola.

But the minute she sets bow to strings, all age and size considerations quickly dissipate. Shoji plays with remarkable maturity, producing a crisp, authoritative sound well beyond her years. Her style is clean and well-defined, informed partly by the high energy and dramatic body language she puts into each piece. Technically, she’s impeccable, especially her bowing technique. And her dexterity is dazzling.

Taking the stage on Friday night in a floor-length, bright red wrap skirt, Shoji showed impressive command from the opening notes of Tchaikovsky’s difficult Concerto for violin and orchestra in D major. She blazed through the complicated runs in the first movement, took the sharp edges off for the sensitive passages of the second movement, then went back into hyperdrive for the final movement, building a fiery momentum that matched the big blasts from the orchestra. If some of the notes started to blur in the final movement, her spirited playing and obvious mastery of the material more than made up for it.

It takes nothing away from Shoji to note that she plays the 1729 Recamier Stradivarius, which would sound good in almost any pair of capable hands. And there are subtle signs of her age – her posture, which seems to limit her expression, and her voice, which though strong is still unformed in some ways. But there is no denying her prodigious talent, and her striking style, which combines a high degree of professional skill with youthful pizazz.

During intermission, a local violinist said she found Shoji a bit off; tired, perhaps, or just not on her best game for Tchaikovsky, or that particular night. That’s possible, though in some ways it’s a disconcerting thought: As good as Shoji was, she can be even better.

A well-traveled master of his craft.
Her partner for the evening was also first-rate. Korean conductor Myung-Whun Chung is respected around the world for his skills at the podium, which have won him invitations from major orchestras in Berlin, Vienna, London, Paris, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Cleveland – and that’s only a partial list. He is currently chief conductor and music director of the Seoul Philharmonic.

Chung conducted both Tchaikovsky and Brahms on Friday night without a score. His economical style belies the full, deep sound he draws from the orchestra, which can be bright at times, and at least on this visit, lacked some of the fine points that other conductors like to develop with Czech orchestras. But the music has a tremendous, irresistible sweep under his baton, the strong voice of someone fully knowledgeable about and in command of the material.

The Tchaikovsky concerto had a lot of pop and more colors than one typically hears in the piece, particularly from the horns. Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 was less colorful but had excellent clarity and thundering impact, particularly in the final movement. To this reviewer’s ear, some of the sections came together better than others. But Chung’s ability to draw specific sounds out of individual sections of the orchestra was an impressive reminder of what a world-class conductor can do.

The only complaint about the concert is that the program was standard fare; the Tchaikovsky concerto in particular is performed regularly in Prague. Shoji’s repertoire includes Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Paganini and Szymanowski, and Chung has won awards for his recordings of works by Messiaen, Shostakovich, Duruflé and Fauré. Next time, how about something a little more adventurous?

Sayaka Shoji’s website:

No comments:

Post a Comment