As a recipe for Gypsy music goulash, Friday night’s concert by the Northwest Sinfonietta in Benaroya Hall seemed a little gentrified: a dash of czardas, a late-classical symphony, a sweet romantic melody, some folk dances and a Spanish virtuoso version of gypsy tunes. But if the Sinfonietta’s season-opening show had more sugar than spice, it was still a highly enjoyable evening, played with style by the orchestra and its Bulgarian soloist, violinist Bella Hristova.
After a folksy arrangement of a traditional csardas, with lugubrious opening, organic accerlerandi and ritardandi and a character-full bass line, director Christophe Chagnard gave both a reason for the concert (a repeat of a popular theme from 2010) and a potted gypsy history. Then followed a little-heard nugget – a symphony by classical composer Jan Václav Voříšek, whose only claim to Gypsy fame is that he was Bohemian, but who could have done great things had he not died of tuberculosis at 34. As it was, his only symphony is a refreshing listen for lovers of classical symphonies: studded with Beethoven-isms like the timpani-roiled I-VI chords of the opening or the rising brass of the finale, but with a more subtle charm and just a few real original moments. While the first violins took awhile to get in tune and in sync (especially exposed here in the Nordstrom Recital Hall) the work highlighted a rich cello/bass section, especially in the Slavic pathos of the second movement, some nice oboe moments, punchy timpani and some sweet (though soft) horn calls in the third. Making good tempo judgements, Chagnard kept the third movement tight and strong rather than galloping, and averted tedium with highly structured dynamics.
Enter Bella Hristova, a young Bulgarian violinist doing great things on the competition, chamber and concerto circuits. She plays a 1655 Amati violin, which maybe determines her tone, but her sound is invariably sweet, a light-gold singing voice with seamless legato that suited Dvořák’s Romance for Violin and Orchestra in F minor perfectly. Hristova also brought a lyric, storytelling musicality that kept the simple theme from becoming predictable, and a delightful individuality in her occasional rubato, portamento and ornamentation.
The sweetness, however, was a slight problem in Sarasate’s famous "Zigeunerweisen." Coming after seven rustic Hungarian Dances by Bartók – arranged from the piano version in some clever scoring, and played with lilting, stomping or mournful verve by the Sinfonietta – this showcase piece demands a gutsy G-string and articulation. Hristova produced neither, sticking to a sweetness and precision – albeit a marvelously virtuosic one – that made the piece sound like it was being sung by a Mozart soprano.
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That aside, Hristova flung herself into the left-hand pizzicato runs, the swooping arpeggios and furious 16th notes with superb musicality and energy, the orchestra only just keeping up with her tempo.
And her encore of a fiery Bulgarian folkdance in a breathless 7/8, with ghostly ponticello, double stops and fierce minor 9ths, well and truly put the Gypsy spice back into the evening’s goulash.