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Modern approach works for I Palpiti

Balkan PeninsulaEnglandWalt DisneyYehudi Menuhin

By the time the Festival of International Laureates' I Palpiti string orchestra enters Walt Disney Concert Hall for its annual showcase, it usually sounds ready to take on the world. Such was the case again Saturday night; the young 24-member ensemble played with a ripeness and polish that is easy to take for granted, yet testifies to the fine preparatory work by its conductor-founder Eduard Schmieder.

To Schmieder's additional credit, though, this concert -- the 11th in the series -- tried to go further. He reached into the contemporary sphere and brought forth a profoundly moving threnody, "Tears of the Angels," by Britain's John Tavener, who started out as a Beatles-sponsored wunderkind and evolved into one of the most popular of the so-called holy minimalists.

With its slowly moving patterns capped by mystic trills for the concertmaster at the very top of the violin's register, "Tears" is dedicated specifically to the suffering of the people of the Balkans. Schmieder aptly expanded that dedication to "all suffering people" everywhere -- and at times, the freely phrased performance seemed to penetrate the "extreme breaking point of tenderness" that Tavener was aiming for. This is a difficult thing to do, for the work requires absolute silence and concentration -- and the shuffling of feet, coughing and some rogue cellphones made it doubly difficult until the final minutes when everyone in the hall finally fell under the piece's spell.

Tavener was the centerpiece of an English trilogy -- again, an enterprising stroke of programming. Britten's edition of Purcell's Chacony in G minor, with some dynamic alterations by Schmieder, set the mood for Tavener; Malcolm Arnold's lushly neo-classical Concerto for Two Violins and Strings was a robust chaser.

Alexandru Tomescu and Catharina Chen displayed contrasting solo styles in Arnold -- Tomescu full of extraordinary temperament, Chen more reticent and lyrical. As an encore, they had fun with the Yehudi Menuhin-Stephane Grappelli elaboration on Jacob Gade's "Jalousie."

After tiny Elena Kawazu, all of 10, wowed with her push-button mastery of the violinistic tricks in Sarasate's "Carmen Fantasy," Schmieder rolled out his own string-orchestra transcription of Grieg's String Quartet in G minor (which he calls Serenade for Strings). He made an especially convincing case for this inflation of means in the third and fourth movements, spotlighting solo instruments in the former and producing a satisfying bass end and massive string sound in the latter. This could be a good companion to Grieg's "Holberg" Suite and Two Elegiac Melodies -- and I Palpiti passionately nailed the Serenade's tough, fast unison runs.

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