The Plain Dealer: March 30, 2007

Violinists have no shortage of concertos to test the extremes of their artistry. Even so, the instrument’s enormous expressive range and agility continue to inspire composers to showcase these qualities.

Thank goodness. Margaret Brouwer’s Concerto for Violin and Chamber Orchestra adds another fine vehicle to the repertoire, as its world premiere Wednesday by violinist Michi Wiancko and CityMusic Cleveland under music director James Gaffigan winningly revealed.

Brouwer, head of the composition department at the Cleveland Institute of Music, knows her way around the violin. She played the instrument professionally before devoting herself entirely to composing. But what makes her concerto so alluring is its surprising tension between skittish and poetic material.

The three-movement commissioned work abounds in extroverted passages that call upon the soloist to negotiate acrobatic flights and suddenly switch gears. In the opening “Narrative,” the violinist has long, bravura statements that melt seamlessly into tender utterances and back again.

The slow movement, “Ballad,” juxtaposes folklike charm with British trip-hop culture as soloist and drummer engage in a hip cadenza. And the sparks scurry in “Gypsy,” a finale of Hungarian-style audacity in which the violin balances perpetual-motion charisma with high-altitude radiance.

Brouwer finds a keen balance between contemporary and tonal language throughout her fresh creation, which Wiancko played to the brilliant hilt. CityMusic’s concertmaster tossed off the dizzying demands with extraordinary confidence and focus. Her sound remained shimmering, whether she was walking technical tightropes or sending songful lines aloft. Gaffigan and the orchestra were equal to Brouwer’s inventive colors.

The program, heard at Fairmount Presbyterian Church in Cleveland Heights, surrounds the new piece with Stravinsky’s “Danses concertantes” and Mozart’s Symphony No. 39. The former is a lilting example of the Russian composer’s neoclassical style, with typical rhythmic incisiveness and airy textures to enchant the ear. The performance was taut and invigorating, animated by Gaffigan’s alert leadership and the orchestra’s lean, crisp artistry.

The Mozart symphony received tightly coiled treatment, almost as if conductor and ensemble were immersed in a life-or-death experience. Gaffigan propelled each movement with fierce intensity, relaxing only to let the scherzo’s endearing trio section dance.

The orchestra responded with playing of cohesive vibrancy. Balances between strings, winds, brasses and timpani (thrillingly pointed) were expert. Mozart sounded as alive as ever.

The Plain Dealer music critic Donald Rosenberg

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