Master Sinfonia features 15-year-old concerto winner

Alex Zhou

The Master Sinfonia Chamber Orchestra concluded its season last weekend by presenting the winner of its first annual concerto competition for young performers. I heard Saturday’s performance at the Portola Valley Presbyterian Church.

The lucky soloist was violinist Alex Zhou, 15, of west San Jose. He brought the Sibelius Violin Concerto to the proceedings. It’s a piece he’d already been working on when the competition was announced, but this was his first chance to play it with an orchestra.

Zhou is, however, hardly inexperienced. He has been winning awards almost since he began studying the violin at the age of 6. Early on, he spent two years as one of the younger participants in Music@Menlo’s Young Performers Program. These are the children who give the fabulously adept Koret Young Performers Concerts that adorn the Menlo festival. Zhou has also appeared with other community orchestras playing various virtuoso concertos, including Mendelssohn’s.

When Sibelius was 15, he dreamed of becoming a violin virtuoso, but he lacked the training and temperament to achieve the goal. His concerto, which he wrote in his late 30s, was his final farewell to that dream. He passed it on to other violinists, and this was Alex Zhou’s turn.

Zhou, his formal dress enlivened with a red bow tie, brought poise beyond his years to this impressive and demanding work. His playing was fully professional in quality but, rather than dazzling the audience, he gave the concerto a slow and dignified performance, occasionally falling into more passionate passages. Even the most frantic violin pages were firmly controlled without lacking drama. Sibelius wrote a virtuoso concerto, but not a show-off concerto. This performance was in keeping with that distinction.

Zhou made much of individual strings’ differing tone quality, producing a variety of expressions and some tangy double-stops. After a tentative slow movement, he unleashed impressive strength by digging into the violin’s G string at the start of the finale.

The orchestra’s part in this concerto is largely to lay the harmonic groundwork for the soloist, with a few characteristically Sibelian passages of its own. Under music director David Ramadanoff, in this piece the orchestra stepped fully up to the task, sounding as fresh and competent as the soloist.

The concert was completed with Brahms’ expansive and contemplative Symphony No. 2. The balance, ensemble work, and above all the overall form and shape of the work were a pleasure to hear. The sound quality conveyed the necessary melancholy Brahms flavor. However, the intonation was not as firm or secure as in the concerto, though the French horns, normally the trickiest instruments in the orchestra, acquitted themselves well.

Though Master Sinfonia has yet to announce its next season, it has booked the dates and venues and released a partial list of repertoire. The first concert will be held Oct. 14 and 15, in the usual venues of the Portola Valley Presbyterian Church and the Los Altos United Methodist Church. Composers to be heard this year will include the Americans Leonard Bernstein and John Adams, in honor of notable anniversaries. Symphonies by Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann will also be played. For the final program in May, the orchestra will collaborate with Shulamit Hoffman’s Viva La Musica choir.

And the second annual concerto competition, to be judged in early fall, will produce another young instrumentalist to perform a concerto to be announced later.

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