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06 03 14 - Armenian violinist, 21, dazzles crowd in S.F.
Posted on Tue, Mar. 14, 2006- Mercury News
From Annette Melikian U.S.A
Armenian violinist, 21, dazzles crowd in S.F.
By Richard Scheinin

A kid named Khachatryan played music by Khachaturian in San Francisco on Sunday. Sergey Khachatryan, a 21-year-old violinist from Armenia, was making his local debut; he played like a poet, with a subtle and commanding mix of confidence, sensitivity and craft.
This charismatic newcomer was performing with the venerable London Philharmonic Orchestra, which made the event extra-special. The entire program at Davies Symphony Hall was defined by the unexpected. Scheduled conductor Kurt Masur, who suffered heart palpitations in Dublin, Ireland, a few days earlier, sent along a protege as his substitute: Brazilian conductor Roberto Minczuk stepped up and did a superb job with Khachaturian's Violin Concerto and Mahler's Symphony No. 1.
So the night, part of the San Francisco Symphony's Great Performers Series, offered its audience a double discovery: new soloist, new conductor. But the kid, Khachatryan -- he was the show.
The concerto by Khachaturian, a father of Armenian ``nationalist'' music in the last century, is spiced with folkloric rhythms, themes and inflections. It also is sensuous, a little bit schmaltzy, and sheerly, at times eerily, beautiful. From the opening bars, the orchestra sounded exceptionally luminous -- those strings!
And then came the soloist: crisp attack, warm singing tone, spot-on intonation. He is slender, with a thatch of curly black hair, and he isn't a showman; he is about clarity and control and expression.
His cadenza in the first movement was cleanly delivered -- all those keening, up-sliding double-stops -- and emotionally full-blooded, without knocking you on the head. As it ended, with the orchestra sliding back in behind Khachatryan, a comfortable ``duet'' was going on between the soloist and his famous accompanists from London.
The orchestra sounded great (not a big surprise): sparkling clarinet and winds; bounding cellos; and clarity all around, down to each ping of the harp. Minczuk, whose gestures are flowing and emphatic, seemed to have established a balance that allowed his players to speak as individuals and as a collective.
There were ghostly tremulous effects in the low strings as the slow, lyrical second movement began. Here, Khachatryan showed a sort of late-night, bluesy restraint, clarifying the schmaltz. And as the third movement began, with a blast of brass, and then more bounding strings -- they sounded like a giant mandolin -- again he held himself in check, building tension.
He pulled earthy sustained notes from his low strings, then soared way up high, before flying back downward, decelerating and shifting into a new tempo, dovetailing expertly with the orchestra as he went on to gobble up all the notes of the final racing sequences.
The audience brought him back for several bows and, finally, Khachatryan offered an encore. It was nothing showy or fast; just the opposite, in fact: the Adagio from Bach's Sonata No. 3 in C major for Solo Violin, which unfolded sweetly, with beautiful control of the instrument (Khachatryan plays the ``Huggins'' Stradivarius, built in 1708).
The violinist has been taken under Masur's wing. He also has performed with the Cleveland Orchestra and the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam and, based on Sunday's evidence, is a winner. He returns soon, on March 29, for a recital at the Florence Gould Theater of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco (www.
Poor Mahler. He played second fiddle to the young violinist on Sunday. His Symphony No. 1 in D major, known as the ``Titan,'' was given a strong performance, with all its swooping and swooning bows to the natural world, its raspy horns, waltzing interludes and great brass anthems.
It wasn't as refined and lovingly nuanced as the Mahler performances we've been hearing from the San Francisco Symphony and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas the past few years. The peeping pastoral sounds that dot the first movement weren't always exactly in place; there was some ragged brass playing in the third movement, where the orchestra momentarily lost its bearings amid klezmer-ish and other dance rhythms.
But the fourth movement was high impact -- literally. The orchestra summoned entire storm systems of sound: crashing cymbals, tolling timpani, screeching strings and great brass pronouncements, with all eight horn players on their feet as Heaven's Gates, figuratively, opened.
Even so, Khachatryan was the show.


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