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Stars align: Symphony doubles the pleasure by pairing guest soloists

Violinist Chee-Yun performs Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018, with the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra at NDSU Festival Concert Hall in Fargo. David Samson / The Forum1 / 2
Chee-Yun and Sergey Antonov give a pre-concert talk Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018, with conductor Christopher Zimmerman before their performance with the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra. The two play again today at NDSU's Festival Concert Hall. David Samson / The Forum 2 / 2

Kicking off its new season Saturday night, the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra put itself in a precarious position. After such an exciting first concert, how will the organization top itself or even keep up the momentum throughout the other four programs this season?

It’s ultimately a great problem to have and one organizer probably anticipated by booking not one, but two soloists for the opening show at North Dakota State University’s Festival Concert Hall. Violinist Chee-Yun and cellist Sergey Antonov each returned for the third time, though the first time together. The star musicians had never even met until midweek, making their dazzling performance all the more impressive. The two paired up for Johannes Brahms’ “Double Concerto” and the way they played off of each other made it seem like they were old friends.

Related:

VIDEO: Chee-Yun tells story of her 349-year-old violin prior to Fargo concert

Brahms wrote the piece for his estranged friend, violinist Joseph Joachim, years after the pals quit talking because the composer took Joachim’s wife’s side in the couple’s divorce. Chee-Yun said before the concert that she envisions parts of the work as a conversation between the two men, with Joachim’s voice the violin and Brahms the cello. One could hear Antonov’s plaintive playing in the beginning of the first movement, Allegro, as an apologetic overture and the violinist answering in kind. The dialogue carries throughout the work, sometimes with the cello making bold assertions and the violin responding in a wonderfully lyrical conversation.

As much a treat for the ears, it was fun to watch the two interact. Both are passionate players and a delight to observe as they communicated only with their eyes.

It’s a bit of a double standard to comment on what a female artist wore rather than focusing on how she played, but when was the last time the FMSO saw a wardrobe change at intermission? That’s the kind of showwoman she is.

Chee-Yun’s fashion sense may be flashy, but her playing is spell-binding. Earlier in the show, she lit off on Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso,” flying through the virtuosic piece she first played as a child with the Seoul Philharmonic in her native Seoul, South Korea. Now she performs the piece like she’s a kite, soaring higher and higher, threatening to break free, only to come floating back to a familiar theme.

Antonov may be every part her musical equal, but the way they play is distinctly different. The cellist performed David Popper’s “Hungarian Rhapsody” with a soul the FMSO rarely sees. Stretching over his instrument and watching his hands spread, glide, roll and tap their way up and down the neck was as thrilling as watching Jimi Hendrix. Which I guess makes Chee-Yun Eddie Van Halen?

Honestly, if the crowd would’ve thought it was acceptable, it would have lit up lighters, or cell phones, after the stars returned for an absolutely brilliant “Passacaglia for Violin and Cello” by George Frideric Handel. The encore was unexpected, but so appreciated you could see conductor Christopher Zimmerman beaming with joy as he peered out from backstage watching the show.

The concert, which has an encore performance today at 2, got off to a telling start with Antonín Dvořák’s “Two Slavonic Dances from Op. 72, No. 2 & 7”. The second movement was like a joyful horse race, a breathtaking romp that leads to a hard-charging finish that could’ve been a fitting finale at any other concert.

Zimmerman and Linda Boyd, executive director of the FMSO, pulled off an amazing opener to the season and it will be a thrill to watch them try to keep up the pace all year.

If you go

What: Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra’s Masterworks Concert

When: 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 30

Where: Festival Concert Hall, 1511 12th Ave. N., North Dakota State University campus

Info: Tickets range from $30 to $50; 701-478-3676.

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