Sixteen-year-old Rhee played Paganini’s Caprice No. 5 for an encore.
Teenage prodigy Julian Rhee delivered an exciting performance as part of an unusual concert by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra on Feb. 24.
The evening opened with what is really a chamber work. The Soldier’s Tale. The story of a duel with the devil was originally a script in French by C. F. Ramuz, and it has dazzlingly pointed music by Igor Stravinsky for a septet of violin, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, double bass and percussion (all drawn from the orchestra). The text, in English translation, was reduced to a one-man narration, delivered with theatrical flair by James DeVita. The instrumental work had its rough moments, but the unflappable violinist Suzanne Beia was outstanding.
The main event was a blockbuster, Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major. The soloist was not some distinguished international visitor, but Rhee, a 16-year-old Milwaukee-area prodigy and winner of an impressive pile of recent awards. Tackling this tiger of a concerto was a bold undertaking, one he brought off with remarkably professional aplomb. His confident mastery of technical demands — even in the fiendish first-movement cadenza — was notable. Rhee needs experience in his interaction with an orchestra, and he must develop a more consistently assertive tone. But he already bears the mark of an extraordinarily promising young artist.
He was, to be sure, aided in playing against a smaller orchestra than is usual in performances of this work. Maestro Andrew Sewell used only 20 string players, a modest amount, which allowed the audience to clearly hear the contributions of the wind instruments.
As an encore, Rhee went beyond bravery to rashness in playing Paganini’s Caprice No. 5 for solo violin. He has all the notes in place, but will need more time to tame this recklessly virtuosic piece. Still, throughout the concert, the audience went wild with standing ovations.
After what might have been a two-work program, the concert continued with a bonus. One could have expected Haydn’s Symphony No. 102 as an opener. But the addition was more than an afterthought. While playing Haydn, Sewell and his orchestra are at their high-spirited best, and they delivered wonderfully.