Ryu Goto, violin: VSO/ Lahav Shani, Works by Glinka, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky, Orpheum, December 6, 2014.

It has only been a few years since Midori gave us a magnificent Brahms Violin Concerto, and now her much younger brother, Ryu, arrives to perform the same work.  Ryu Goto’s performing career began at age seven when he made his debut at the Pacific Music Festival in Sapporo, Japan, playing Paganini's Violin Concerto No.1. A principal student of Cho-Liang Lin, he has already recorded six CD’s for Deutsche Grammophon, mainly of fairly brilliant virtuoso works and transcriptions, and he is only 26.  Interestingly, he holds a 3rd degree black belt from the Japan Karate Association – so reviewers beware!  Young Israeli conductor Lahav Shani, 25, was awarded first prize at the Gustav Mahler International Conducting Competition in 2013, and was subsequently invited to open the 2013/14 season of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

One could tell that Ryu Goto had a following at this concert, since there seemed to be a variety of traditional Japanese costumes in the audience. While Goto’s tone is small and light, I must say that I have seldom heard a violinist with such precision in his articulation – like a knife through butter.  This razor-sharp projection gave us a very clean and refined rendering of the Brahms, admirable in its way, but perhaps not digging into the work’s full lyrical spirit and feeling.  The expressive line was not particularly long or warm, and for all the dramatic attack and detailing, this tended to keep the listener at one remove.  Perhaps this is the way of the virtuoso because, at times, there were little pushes and sweet inflections at the end of phrases that I have never heard before.  The violinist also tended to jump strongly at certain details yet treat other sections with an almost serenade-like innocence.  This was certainly interesting enough but rather the opposite of Midori’s seasoned performance that was subtly understated but both wonderfully expressive and radiant too.  Maybe there is a family agreement that both cannot do the same thing!   

Conductor Lahav Shani provided creditable accompaniment, achieving some degree of breadth and power, though his concern with bringing out the lower string lines made the orchestral fabric somewhat thick for a soloist with a lighter tone. I also thought the orchestra was too loud on a number of occasions. The repeated emphasis on the initial timpani note in the key theme of the finale – to augment momentum – is something that only a very youthful conductor might find attractive. 

On his own, the conductor gave us a bustling and disciplined reading of Glinka’s Russlan and Ludmilla overture as the opener, but his big challenge was Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony.  Sometimes I think this is dangerous work for a very young conductor because of the temptation to get carried away by the passion and power of it all, losing structural cogency and subtlety in the process. Well, there was a bit of that here: most of it was fine in a slightly no-nonsense way, though there can be little doubt that the conductor was occasionally on the lookout for purple patches to emphasize. The first movement tended to be slightly chunky in articulation, generating good forward movement but not having much atmosphere or romantic ardour. The lovely Andante started at a good pace, probably a little loud, but proceeded to get faster and faster as we approached its surging climax.  Interestingly, the same acceleration occurred in the Waltz too.  The finale was moved home with unremitting energy and strong brass everywhere – perhaps more a feeling of an ‘orchestral showpiece’ than any personal testament to struggle and resolution. Nonetheless, the conductor did seem to have a great deal of fun in this adventure, and will probably get greater command over the more subtle beauties in this work as he matures.  The only other thing that this concert brought to mind is the sheer number of young conductors that now seem to be in the mould of Gustavo Dudamel, all apparently persuaded that it is only through great energy, passion and brilliance that an audience can be engaged.


© Geoffrey Newman 2014