When Sarah Kwak, the Minnesota Orchestra's first associate concertmaster since 1990 and its acting concertmaster for the 20 months preceding Erin Keefe's arrival, decided to play Alexander Glazunov's Violin Concerto toward the end of the 2011-12 season, she could not have known that the work would be her swan song with the orchestra where she has played for nearly a quarter-century.
In the wake of her unsuccessful bid for the concertmaster's chair in Minneapolis, the Boston-born, Philadelphia-trained Kwak, in time-honored fashion, is going west -- to Portland, Ore., where this fall she becomes concertmaster of the Oregon Symphony. Her timing seems perfect. The Portland-based band, which made an acclaimed Carnegie Hall debut last year, is on a roll. (Her husband, longtime Minnesota Orchestra violinist Vali Phillips, won a position in the Oregon Symphony earlier this season.)
Nor could Kwak have known that in the week of her solo turn, the Minnesota Orchestra would trim nine full-time administrative staffers in its ongoing attempt to address a record budget deficit. These convergent circumstances made Thursday's all-Russian Orchestra Hall concert, led by Italian guest conductor Carlo Rizzi, a poignant occasion.
Glazunov's 1904 concerto -- the work of a complicated and compassionate ex-prodigy whose students included Dmitri Shostakovich -- is at bottom a romantic display piece, no more searching than that label suggests. But the score brims with inventive touches. And Kwak makes it sing, finding a current of tenderness in the music that trumps the pyrotechnics. In 20 minutes of nearly nonstop fiddling, she never puts a foot wrong; she is sovereign in Glazunov's dark-hued cadenza and even better in his festive finale, where she plays with marvelous freedom. Her performance is a pointed reminder of what we're losing.
The orchestra's program opens with the "Polovtsian Dances" from Alexander Borodin's unfinished "Prince Igor" -- an opera rescued from oblivion by the editorial labors of Glazunov and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Rizzi's account, though animated, is a bit lacking in the sensuality and barbarian splendor that Russian conductors can bring to this music (which sounds best with the original choral parts).
No such reservations attach to Rizzi's sagely chosen, chronologically ordered selections from Sergei Prokofiev's music for "Romeo and Juliet" -- perhaps the greatest ballet score ever written. Here the conductor's gifts as a storyteller, honed in opera houses, come to the fore. And the orchestra, as if shaking its fist at adversity, plays gloriously.