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Concert Review

Sistema Side-by-Side musicians take the stage in Longy School’s gala

Tue Mar 19, 2019 at 1:57 pm

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Timothy Chooi performed at the Longy School's Sistema Side-by-Side concert Monday night.

Timothy Chooi performed at the Longy School’s Sistema Side-by-Side concert Monday night. Photo: Dan Busler

From its inception, the Longy School of Music’s Sistema Side-by-Side program has been central to the institution’s mission of combining musical training with social engagement. Begun in 2013 and modeled on Venezuela’s ambitious El Sistema music education system, Side-by-Side draws together students aged 6-18 from across Massachusetts, connecting them with Longy graduate students for rehearsals and performance opportunities.

On Monday night at Sanders Theater, Longy’s 2019 Gala celebrated six years of Side-by-Side with an evening of feasting and fundraising that framed a concert showcasing the program’s three primary groups.

Starting things off, the string orchestra, made up of the program’s youngest participants, played Merle J. Isaac’s Gipsy Overture. This short score offers a mix of darkly swooning melodies and snappy rhythmic episodes that sound vaguely bohemian but doesn’t get its feet too dirty, a la Bartók.

Conductor Jorge Soto led the ensemble in a lively account of the piece, the first violin’s rhythms plenty tight and the whole group building together to a swaggering final cadence.

After that, Carley DeFranco directed the Side-by-Side choir in a sweetly earnest rendition of Jim Papoulis’s generically uplifting anthem, “Stand Together.” Alex Dillon and Jonathan Shin provided subtle accompaniments on, respectively, bodhrán (a traditional Irish drum) and piano.

The remainder of the evening’s program featured the Side-by-Side symphony orchestra.

For their first piece, the ensemble was joined by violinist Timothy Chooi performing the finale of Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1.

To judge from Chooi’s seven-plus minutes on stage, he’s a fiddler to watch. First Prize Winner of the 2018 Joseph Joachim International Violin Competition, he’s clearly got some chops.

But his gifts are more than merely technical. True, Chooi’s performance was spectacularly in tune. And he articulated the movement’s extensive double stops and florid passagework – even its knottiest figures – with clarity and purpose.

Yet the best thing about Chooi’s Bruch was how serenely it sang. This was a reading that, by and large, aimed to serve what Virgil Thomson called the “Grand Line”: the soloist let the music unfold naturally and, once settled in his comfortable place, devoted the performance to highlighting the score’s lyrical details.

Chooi was certainly helped by the sweet tone he drew from his 1717 Windsor-Weinstein Stradivarius. Soothing and agreeable, he recalled a young Joshua Bell with his elegant phrasing and obvious feeling for Bruch’s sweeping, Romantic style. It would have been nice to hear more from him – the full Bruch concerto would have better showcased Chooi’s interpretive range – but Monday’s abbreviated selection was enticing enough.

Rounding out the evening were the second and fourth movements of Antonin Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9.

One of the quirks with enrollment for the Side-by-Side symphony orchestra is, occasionally, a thinness in certain instrumental sections. For this concert, the ensemble’s lower end was light (just one double bass) and the wind and brass sections were dotted with “guest performers.”

So it perhaps shouldn’t have been surprising that the famous English horn melody in the Dvořák’s slow movement was played by a trumpet. But the solo was executed with golden tone and made for such a striking timbral contrast when the clarinet and bassoon entered a bit later on that one rather welcomed the alteration.

Otherwise, Monday’s reading, which was again led by Soto, was largely standard. The orchestra’s playing was well-paced and, in the movement’s second theme, bracingly intense.

So, too, the finale, which was propulsive even in the quiet moments and offered a remarkable degree of textural clarity, not least when things got loud.

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