Almost everyone knows a bit of Richard Strauss's "Also Sprach Zarathustra": the massive fanfare that begins it, better known as the opening music of the soon-to-be-obsolete movie "2001: A Space Odyssey." The rest of it is relatively unknown for several reasons. Above all, it poses some subtly formidable problems of balance, texture, phrasing, accent and, in general, style--which makes a conductor and orchestra think twice before programming it. Also, its spectacular beginning and pretentious title, invoking the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, have created a feeling that it is 90 seconds of bombast followed by a half-hour of semi-incoherent anticlimax.
A good performance--one that masters the music's challenges and conveys a strong sense of structure--can negate that impression. It received such a performance Saturday night in George Mason University's Center for the Arts, from the Fairfax Symphony and conductor William Hudson. The performance began with a relatively restrained treatment of the opening fanfare, so that the most climactic moments came later. The work's varied styles were scrupulously observed, with particular charm in the "Viennese" segment and a solo by concertmaster David Salness that was as smooth as whipped cream.
Also smooth, light and lyrical was the solo playing of Korean violinist Chee-Yun in Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. Her smooth legato and limpid tone seem particularly apt for this bright, gentle music. One might wonder how well she would do in Sibelius or Prokofiev, but that hardly mattered on this occasion; she and Mendelssohn are soul mates.
The program opened with a properly energetic performance of Dvorak's bright "Carnival" Overture.