As Artist-in-Residence at Duke University, violinist Jennifer Koh has had wide musical impact throughout the Triangle. Her Beethoven sonata recital January 30, part of the Chamber Arts Society series, wowed music lovers. Her nationwide tour with the “Bridge to Beethoven” program was explored in a public interview with Larry Todd March 1 – a nice tie-in with his course on the composer. The artistic climax came in Baldwin Auditorium with her performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, which included student musicians of the Duke Symphony Orchestra under the baton of music director Harry Davidson.

A rousing performance of the overture to the opera Euryanthe (1823) by Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826) opened the concert. The opera’s foolish and complicated libretto has kept its widespread performance outside of Germany. The overture is filled to the brim with brilliance, spontaneity, and imaginative scoring. It opens with an intense flourish for full orchestra. A showy phrase for brass and woodwind is juxtaposed with a tender melody sung by the violins. Both are derived from two of the hero’s arias within this opera. The most famous episode is the “ghost music,” played by muted violins joined by whispered tremolos by the viola section. After extended development, the return of the lyric theme leads to a triumphant finish.

Davidson kept his student musicians in close ensemble with excellent sectional cohesion and only a very few slight early or late entrances. Rhythms were vivid and phrasing was excellent. All the string sections played with a fine sheen and the brass and woodwinds efforts were solid. Hushed, quiet portions were very well played.

When I built my LP record collection in the 70s, the excessive frequency with which Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D. 759 (1822) by Franz Schubert (1797-1828) filled side B led me to a lack of enthusiasm. No one knows why the composer left it unfinished. The two movements are in not very related keys, and Schubert lived a further six years. Davidson’s interpretation was immediately engaging and vital. Playing was refined with a number of outstanding solos by principal musicians such as clarinetist Neil Luo and oboist William Huh. This was a wonderfully fresh and engaging performance. Strings were impressive with a fine rich sound from the cellos and crisp articulation from the violin and viola sections.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) composed his Violin Concerto in D, Op. 61 (1806) for the violinist Franz Clement who was renowned for his perfect intonation, dazzling dexterous bowing, and above all, delicacy and elegance. The massive first movement is derived from the opening five soft beats on the kettledrum joined in turn by the woodwinds and violins. This rhythm and exploration of key relationships dominates the whole movement. The middle movement is a set of variations that leads into the rousing concluding rondo finale. This concerto is a major arrow in every virtuoso’s quiver.

Koh’s interpretation and performance was breathtaking and simply magnificent! Her intonation was flawless as was her bowing. Her warm tone was enhanced with a refined palette of color and dynamics. As effective as the big moments were, her execution of delicate, ornamental portions Beethoven composed for Clement as accompaniment to the orchestra were especially satisfying. Davidson provided an orchestral support that fit like a glove, and the students played their hearts out with intensity and tight ensemble. There was a palpable give-and-take between soloist and the deeply committed young musicians. Some of the principal players were rotated after intermission. The important pair of bassoons were superbly played by Amy Kramer and Jake Thomas. Clarinetist Neel Prabhu and oboist Delia Li gave very effective solos. Principal horn Andrew Pericak’s playing, over the course of the entire concert, grew more polished, culminating very satisfyingly throughout the Beethoven.