By Dennis D. Rooney
23-year old Sirena Huang won the grand prize at last year’s inaugural Elmar Oliveira International Violin Competition held at Lynn University in Boca Raton. On Jan. 22, she gave a local recital, part of the Kravis Center’s Young Artists Series. That complex’s Rinker Playhouse was an ideal venue.
With Robert Koenig at the piano, Huang played a challenging program that began with the Suite Italienne, six movements from Stravinsky’s ballet Pulcinella arranged for violin and piano by the composer and violinist Samuel Dushkin, This is a lighthearted, sometimes frisky succession of Neapolitan dances and songs once attributed to Pergolesi. In the virtuosic “Tarantella” and the “Finale,” Huang was most impressive; elsewhere, she sounded a bit straitlaced.
Ravel’s Second Sonata followed. This work occupied its composer from 1923-27, with breaks when other works intervened. The influence of American jazz and blues, first heard in France during and after World War I, is strongly echoed in the sonata’s second and third movements. It was an encounter that clearly moved him, for jazz (as refracted by his imagination) also colors portions of L’Enfant et les sortilèges and both piano concertos.
Beginning with a naïve melody first heard in the piano, the sonata’s opening Allegretto soon explores some spiky rhythms in both instruments. After violin pizzicati imitating a banjo, the succeeding Moderato (“Blues”) contrasts a languorous atmosphere in the violin against steady syncopations in the piano. The finale is a moto perpetuo Allegro that adds brilliance to languor.
Little or none of the insouciant humor of the work was heard in Huang’s playing, which despite unexceptionable technical accomplishment, was buttoned-up when it should have swaggered. Koenig’s impeccable pianism offered the best of the performance of both.
Tchaikovsky’s Valse-Scherzo (in C minor, Op. 34) often turns up in competition repertoire, although it was not specifically conceived as a morceau de concours. Written in early 1877 and published the following year, it was dedicated to Josef Kotek (1855-1885), a violinist and a probable lover of the composer, who dedicated the work to him in appreciation of Kotek’s assistance with the Violin Concerto. Tchaikovsky’s success with waltzes in his ballets and the Symphony No. 5 are famous. Huang played the six-minute Valse-Scherzo with abundant brilliance but also with more platinum than diamond sonority. She also lacked charm.
After intermission, when she began Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 2 (in D, Op. 94bis), everything was suddenly different. She was a perfect fit for this work that Prokofiev originally wrote for flute in 1942 during a wartime relocation to Perm in the Ural Mountains. At the suggestion of his friend, David Oistrakh, the composer recast the work as a violin sonata (hence the bis after the opus number). It was premiered June 17, 1944, by Oistrakh and pianist Lev Oborin. For whatever reason, Huang’s sound warmed for this work as it had not done for anything on the program’s first half.
She caught the mood of each of its four movements exactly, and with Koenig’s enlivening and utterly reliably support, fully articulated their rhythmic and dynamic character. Her performance was definitely that of a prizewinner, as was that of Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen, the program’s finale. In between, a short work, Entranced by Mountain Scenery, by the Chinese composer Li Shangqian, offered a pleasant contrast between the Prokofiev Sonata’s high-spirited finale and the Sarasate’s pageant of surpassing virtuosity.
Her encore was equally ambitious: Henri Vieuxtemps’s Souvenir d’amerique (or “Yankee Doodle” Variations), Op. 17, inspired by his American tour in 1843.