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Virtuoso violinists aim high but fall short

LENOX -- Two star violinists, Gil Shaham and Midori, joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra and guest conductor Hans Graf over the weekend at Tanglewood.

Born eight months apart in 1971, obviously a good year for violinists, Shaham and Midori could not be more different in personality and in sound, even though they studied with the same teacher, the late Dorothy DeLay. But they were united in a desire to deliver a personal take on the music they played.

Without announcement, Midori was celebrating the 20th anniversary of the famous concert with Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood that made her a star at 15: Strings kept breaking, and she kept going.

Sunday afternoon she played Bruch's First Concerto, hardly looking a day older than she did in 1986. From the very first phrase, indeed from the very first sustained note, it was clear she wanted to rescue this piece from virtuoso tradition. Whenever she could, she emphasized the slow, quiet, meditative dimensions of the music.

This was sometimes illuminating, but she occasionally misjudged the tempo (the middle movement was far too slow to hold together) and the venue (she kept disappearing from audibility). She certainly has virtuoso chops and sailed invigoratingly through the finale, although her tone sounded wiry and thin. And at least she wasn't content simply to go through the motions; you could tell she was thinking about the music even when you couldn't hear what she was thinking.

Shaham faced the larger challenge of the Beethoven Concerto. He played it with huge, glamorous tone and considerable freedom and rubato, which sometimes tumbled over into messing with the music. This too brought some fresh insights, and in the finale he avoided jabbing the second note of the theme with an accent Beethoven specifically wanted to avoid (the orchestra, on the other hand, followed old habit and crashed down on it). But the violinist's attempt to turn Beethoven's slow movement, marked ``Larghetto," into something approaching sentimental stasis was not convincing.

Graf, consummate professional that he is, attentively provided an appropriate framework for what the violinists did. And the dapper Austrian maestro, music director of the Houston Symphony and a steady guest of the BSO for the last decade, led some delightful performances of popular orchestral repertoire.

With Midori, there was a sparkling account of Mendelssohn's ``Italian" Symphony and a rollicking trip through Strauss's ``Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks." The bubbling transparency of the Strauss was particularly welcome because this piece can turn murky. James Summerville confidently led off with the famous horn call.

With Shaham, Graf chose Stravinsky's complete ballet score ``The Firebird." In recent years the suite has been heard more often than the full version, which was a favorite showpiece of former music director Seiji Ozawa. But the full score is infinitely more intricate and fascinating than the suite, which is all plums and no pudding. Graf led the score with intelligence and precision, and the members of the orchestra played it with individual sensitivity and blazing ensemble virtuosity.

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