A great orchestra must do more than simply schedule a new, modern work now and then. It must bring that piece to life with as much devotion as it would give to an old master. And it must let the audience into the secret of why the new work is worth listening to in the first place.
The Fairfax Symphony did that and more Saturday night at Fairfax High School in playing the Washington area premiere of Krzysztof Penderecki's Viola Concerto.
In his second appearance with the Fairfax Symphony in as many years, violist Miles Hoffman offered a breathtaking performance that revealed technical artistry and musical sensitivity. From the opening passage for unaccompanied viola, Hoffman captivated the audience with his soulful interpretation of the music (one that he arrived at under the supervision of Penderecki).
The one-movement concerto is constructed around a simple yet moving melody. Written by the Polish-born composer, it is music of tragic beauty, informed by the experiences of a man who was witness to the horror of Nazi occupation of his country and the continued suppression of its national identity.
Hoffman, once a violist with the National Symphony Orchestra, has to be commended for championing such music when it is so much easier to establish a career as a soloist with more familiar works. But Hoffman shares the credit with Fairfax Symphony music director William Hudson "for agreeing to do the piece in the first place," Hoffman said.
A perfect performance of a new work would still be lacking if the audience were unable to appreciate it. So the Fairfax Symphony's composer-in-residence, Anthony Stark, gave a short preconcert lecture on trends in modern composition, comparing Penderecki's Viola Concerto to his earlier, more experimental works and to the music of other modern composers.
The rest of the concert was also smooth sailing, beginning with Mendelssohn's "Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage" and concluding with Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony ("Pathetique"). Hudson conducted a precise yet fluid Tchaikovsky, with a string section that is more assured this season under the leadership of new concertmaster Ivan Minas-Bekov, and with many impressive solo efforts, most notably clarinetist Craig Rine.