Saturday, February 21, 2009

Music review: Violinist Hou exceptional in Flagler concert

Yi-Jia Susanne Hou.

By Greg Stepanich

PALM BEACH -- If ever there were a violinist whose gifts and achievements suit her perfectly for the modern age, it might well be Yi-Jia Susanne Hou.

The Shanghai-born Canadian violinist brought her hair-raising technical wizardry and hair-tossing theatrical flair to the Flagler Museum on Thursday night as part of Whitehall's chamber music series. She showed absolute confidence and mastery in every respect of her program, which extended from Beethoven to Kreisler, and easily exuded the star quality that has put her in the spotlight for two years as a lead violinist in Bowfire, the touring Riverdance-with-fiddles extravaganza.

Given that, it would be logical to suggest that she was more effective in the flashier, less substantive parts of her recital, but in addition to the dazzling things she did with Sarasate, Hou also proved in her weightier selections that she is a player of real depth and interpretive seriousness, and that makes for an almost unnervingly successful combination.

Hou was accompanied by her cousin, Elaine Hou, a Canadian pianist pursuing doctoral work in New York, and began with the Romance in F, Op. 50, of Beethoven, the second of the two he wrote, and normally heard in its original orchestral version. From the very first phrase, Hou demonstrated that she is the possessor of a gigantic sound, a perfectly centered tone, and a deep understanding of musical structure.

The music was strong and serene at the first appearance of the main theme, intense and passionate in the minor-key contrasting section, and she offered up little moments of bravura -- a wonderfully light, skittering downward scale in the ornamented recapitulation of the theme, for instance --- that showed not only how well she plays but how well she understands the entertainment value of what she is playing. It was a lovely performance, and one only wished for the sound of an orchestra behind her, Elaine Hou's fine work notwithstanding.

The Beethoven was followed by the sole Violin Sonata (in E-flat, Op. 18) of Richard Strauss, a marvelous piece that makes one regret the composer's later focus on opera to the exclusion of chamber music. This sonata calls for a player like Hou in that it demands great resources of power and technique, and she was more than up to the challenge. In the first movement, she played with sweep and strength, navigating the octave leaps of the secondary theme in particular with an acrobat's precision.

In the Andante cantabile second movement, Hou provided welcome respite from the bigness of the first movement, playing the gorgeous theme with sensitivity and attention to its long-breathed nature; she made a special point of emphasizing the tiny four-note downward scale that closes the melody, marking it each time with a different color. The finale, dominated by a large-boned theme that looks forward to the tone poem Don Juan that was only a year away, constitutes a workout for both violinist and pianist, and the two Hous carried it off with fire and a good sense of the nascent Straussian style.

There might have been a little too much of that style in Susanne Hou's playing, in that there were one too many near-portamento swoops, but in the next work, the Paul Kochanski transcription of Manuel de Falla's Suite Populaire Espagnole, that mannerism had disappeared. Instead, Hou gave each of these six short pieces a superb focus that made each of the songs' characters completely distinct.

She was especially affecting in Nana, the second song, which she played with a pale shading that gave it a haunting sadness, and in the fourth song, Jota, in which her Bowfire persona took front-and-center with a winning verve.

The closing work was the Faust Fantasy of Sarasate, based on Charles Gounod's deathless opera about the medieval alchemist who cut a bad deal with Beelzebub. This is a showpiece first and last, and Hou played it beautifully, tearing off even the treacherous pizzicati of Sarasate's treatment of the waltz music with great accuracy and elan.

Two pieces by Fritz Kreisler, Schoen Rosmarin and, for an encore, Syncopation, also were part of Hou's recital. She has a fine sense of what to do with these tasty miniatures, giving them the communicative immediacy they demand but not succumbing to an overdose of schmaltz. It also was interesting to hear these pieces, which are much more delicate in Kreisler's own recordings, played with Hou's full-voiced approach; it made them somehow more impressive.

Hou is an exceptional violinist who has an unusual combination of highly developed talents that are ideal for an arts age in which making a forceful media impact grows more important each day. At the same time, she is musician enough to tackle the more subtle regions of her art with equal panache, and that should make this 31-year-old Canadian far more of a household name than she is now.

The next and final concert in the Flagler Museum series features Tempesta di Mare, a five-member touring ensemble from the Philadelphia Baroque orchestra. The group will present a program called Handel's London, featuring music from the early Georgian period in England, including William Babell, Rudolf Straube, Arcangelo Corelli and Handel himself. The concert is set for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 3. Tickets are $60, and can be had by calling 655-2833 or visiting the museum's Website at

Yi-Jia Susanne Hou and Elaine Hou in concert Thursday night at the Flagler Museum.
(Photo by Amanda Wilson, copyright 2009 Flagler Museum)

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