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Music review: Violinist Anna Lee sails through demanding program at Kennedy Center

It is amazing to me how high the bar has become for young string players looking to make a solo career. The globalization of top-level teaching, nourished by the online availability of videos of the greatest artists throughout recorded history, has brought about threshold standards that were unimaginable when I was a conservatory student in the 1970s. Violinist Anna Lee would have run the table back then. But this brilliant violinist, all of 18, presented Sunday at the Kennedy Center by the Washington Performing Arts Society, has an uphill battle today.

Lee sailed through a demanding, if not terribly imaginative, program of Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy, Piazzolla and Hubay with unruffled, sovereign command. Nary a note out of place, and the concluding fireworks of Hubay “Carmen Fantasie Brillante” tossed off with flair and childlike enjoyment.

All Lee lacks at this point is a solo-caliber sound. While she has mercifully eschewed the stop-start vibrato that plagues so many other young string players today, her tone is still impersonal and not terribly interesting. In the lyrical passages from her Beethoven sonata (the C minor), the Massenet “Meditation” and the Elgar “Salut d’amor” (which she offered as an encore), one continually waited for the sound to bloom into the rich, singing quality that the best fiddlers produce.

Again, we’re talking about a mere 18-year-old, who has plenty of time to ferment and develop. But artists such as Joshua Bell, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Hilary Hahn and Gil Shaham were already “there” at that age. Lee is now enrolled at Harvard, wrote her own (highly erudite) program notes and has also begun a conducting career. Perhaps her talents are too wide to confine to this small wooden box.

Pianist Robert Koenig, a seasoned veteran, followed Lee carefully, but his passage-work was sometimes uneven, and here and there he overpowered her.

Battey is a freelance writer.

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