Here’s a theory behind why Tucson Symphony Orchestra has never performed Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto in D major before Friday night: It’s a beast.
A big, beautiful, virtuosic beast that requires a violinist with impeccable technical skills to power through 22 minutes and make it look thrilling, yet natural, like all that talent is so ingrained in their muscle memory that they could play it on any given Friday night.
Last Friday night, with 1,200 people at Tucson Music Hall, China-born Boston transplant Angelo Xiang Yu was that guy. He picked and plucked and bowed through Prokofiev’s tangled web of notes, making sense where there at times seem none to be had.
Yu’s 300-year-old Stradivarius, on loan from a benefactor, created a warm hum when he bowed. He tapped the bow on the strings creating a percussive thump, then drew the bow down, then up with such a sense of urgency that notes spilled forth in a frenzy in the terrifically virtuosic middle movement.
His playing throughout was precise, yet it felt in many ways unscripted, as if Yu could at any moment add just enough of his personality to create something wholly original. Of course he never strayed from the score, bringing to the stage a unique experience of having performed the Prokofiev several times in his fledgling career.
Yu, 27, also proved to be a dynamically expressive musician. Every emotion he felt from the Prokofiev showed in his face; a twisted smile, eyes raised slightly so that he looked like he was alternately on the verge of a wink and a smile.
Not surprisingly, Friday’s audience showered Yu with bravos and a standing ovation. He returned the love with a pair of encores — a spirited turn on Paganini’s playful Caprice No. 9 and a movement from Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in G minor. When he got to the final note, Yu let it delicately fade just as the hall erupted in another round of bravos.
The orchestra opened Friday’s program, which the TSO and Yu will repeat at 2 p.m. Sunday, with the energetic percussion fest of “Polovtsian Dances” from Borodin’s opera “Prince Igor.” Cymbals crashed and timpani rumbled as cellos played pizzicato, adding a more subtle layer of drama punctuated by the full complement of the orchestra’s brass and winds section. The strings brought the only calm to this glorious storm.
The concert closed with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 “Pathétique,” a sobering and somber work that reflects on the finality of death. Guest conductor David Lockington took the orchestra on the 45-plus minute journey that culminated with the orchestra’s version of the Mannequin Challenge — a trend from last year where folks freeze in place and stay that way for several minutes. At the end of the Tchaikovsky symphony, Lockington and the orchestra remained perfectly still with not so much as an eye blink for several moments before the audience started applauding.