The arrival on the musical scene of a fresh young soloist talent is always worth noting, and in the case of the South Korean violinist SooBeen Lee, she’s been getting a lot of major attention.
Lee, who turned 18 in September, is currently studying with the great pedagogue Miriam Fried at the New England Conservatory, the Boston school where she won the concerto competition earlier this year. She’s also racked up prizes at the Menuhin, Oistrakh and Young Concert Artists contests; her performances on YouTube back up much of the critical praise she’s won as one of the most promising young violinists of the rising generation.
The Palm Beach Symphony’s affiliation with YCA has landed the 45-year-old orchestra two concerto appearances by Lee, one of them Thursday night at the Benjamin School in Palm Beach Gardens, and the other tonight at the Roberts Theater at St. Andrew’s School in Boca Raton. Lee is featured in both appearances in the Violin Concerto (in D, Op. 77) of Johannes Brahms, one of the towering works of the literature.
And indeed, Lee’s playing Thursday night was that of a formidable, if still developing, violinist. She has a big sound, a huge technique (with only a couple minor intonation near-misses in some of the octaves), and perhaps more remarkable considering her age, a maturity of interpretation that showed up immediately in the Brahms concerto in the secondary theme of the first movement. Her reading of it had real personality, warmth and nostalgia; so often, it’s the subtlety of this kind of writing that escapes young technical wizards, but not Lee.
Unfortunately, Lee had to struggle for much of the concerto with conductor Ramón Tebar’s unpersuasive ideas about tempo, especially in the opening movement, which he led at a lumbering Wagnerian pace, robbing the music of any feeling of forward motion and creating a movement made up of static sections that lacked narrative connection. I don’t know whether it was misguided Brahms reverence or some other factor, but it was a definite mismatch for Lee, who sounded at times as though she were straining against the stiff metal bars of Tebar’s pacing.
Lee met the challenges of the second and third movements handily: Golden tone and tender expression in the first case, vigor and bravura in the second. But the second movement was scarcely slower than the first, which made two-thirds of the concerto almost soporific. One hopes Tebar picks up the pace in tonight’s concert; Lee deserves it. It would have been even nicer to hear her in a solo recital while she was in town for the Brahms. That would have given audiences a better idea of the scope of this excellent young musician’s talent.
The second half of the concert was devoted to the Second Symphony of Schumann (in C, Op. 61). This was a mostly scrappy, energetic reading of this fine Romantic symphony, albeit with the kinds of blemishes you expect from underrhearsal, such as ends of phrases not carefully closed off and a scattering of note splatters in the brass. Tebar’s tempi were much better here, though there were also passages where he seemed to stop the bus to revel in a particular chord change or passage.
It reminded me of the conducting of the late Lorin Maazel, who is remembered with fondness and respect, but who indulged in this very mannerism every time I heard him live. A certain passage would suddenly be subject to a seemingly random accelerando, or in another, he would linger over the music without much regard for the overall pulse of the piece. It never seemed to serve the music well, and that was the case Thursday night at the Benjamin School.
There were good things here, such as the zippy second movement, which everyone likes and which the strings had clearly spent some time on. The orchestra’s playing had punch and life, and the relatively small size of the orchestra was pretty close to the size of ensemble Schumann wrote for and with which he would have been familiar. The wind soloists in the third movement played admirably well, and the finale finished off the concert in suitably exuberant style.
The Palm Beach Symphony and violinist SooBeen Lee perform at 7:30 tonight in the Roberts Theater on the campus of St. Andrew’s School in western Boca Raton. Tickets: $35. Call 281-4015 or visit palmbeachsymphony.org.