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Ju-Young Baek returns to Boise Philharmonic

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Ah, fall. Leaves once hanging harmlessly in the trees now clog gutters and windshield wipers. Grocery stores introduce "winter beers," whose high alcohol content presage the arrival of seasonal affective disorder. And just as regularly, violinist Ju-Young Baek visits the Boise Philharmonic and makes local classical music fans feel like they've pulled off a world-class musical coup.

Not hip to that tradition, you say? You should be. Baek is one of that rarest breed of musical visitors to Idaho: those who play here, subsequently garner massive acclaim at much larger venues around the world, and then play in Idaho once again. The October 23 program featuring Baek is her third in Boise in three years, but in the meantime she has soloed with such luminaries as the London Philharmonic, the Tokyo Symphony and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic. While certainly not the first Boise alum to rocket upwards through the classical ranks, Baek is definitely unique in that, in the words of Philharmonic conductor James Ogle, "I've been in the business 33 years, and I've never, ever hired the same artist for three consecutive years." He quickly adds, "And she is so in-demand, I fully expect that she is going to be out of our price range after this season is over."

Baek's Boise-sized performance price is a result of her contract with the musical promoters Young Concert Artists, which she won at the 2000 YCA International Auditions--one of a half-dozen such international violin competitions at which the one-time child prodigy has triumphed. But there is another element beyond affordability at play in order for Baek to return for an unprecedented third performance in Boise. "The two of us, from the very first moment we met at rehearsal, have a real synergy. We see eye to eye from the first downbeat to the last," Ogle explains. "There are other young musicians [with whom] I've been simpatico, but she is the terrific exception."

In her previous visits, Baek returned the compliment by performing lengthy, intensely technical violin concertos by the likes of Tchaikovsky and Brahms. This time, however, the 28-year-old is playing a shorter but no less famous concerto which has been a staple for child prodigies since its inception--namely, romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn's Concerto in E Minor for Violin and Orchestra. Baek first learned the piece at age 11 and first performed it, "Probably for some tiny orchestra in Seoul. I can't even remember the name."

The concerto, crafted over the period of a decade by Mendelssohn, premiered just a year after the premiere of his better-known poetic overture to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (featuring the ubiquitous "Wedding March"). Like that piece, it showcases the composer's so-called "fairy music," emphasizing expressive, fantastical lyricism over technical prowess--although the two elements combine in a searing third movement which only a world-class musician like Baek could label "fun."

"It's a very passionate piece, yet it can't be too thick," Baek explains of her mindset in performing the concerto. "It carries beautiful melodies throughout the first and second movements, but gets very profound at the end of each movement--I have to tread delicately. It's a little shorter and very different feeling than the Tchaikovsky and Brahms I played [previously with the BP], but is still beautiful and very exciting."

Ogle views the piece and its limited length with a different kind of excitement. "It gives her room to do an encore," he says expectantly, "and I don't know yet what that will be."

Baek did not divulge the identity of her curtain call piece to me either, but whatever it is, it will be the capstone to an already impressive program. Also on the bill for the October 23 performance are Richard Wagner's tender chamber composition Siegfried Idyll, and Joseph Haydn's London Symphony No. 104. The former is a gentle, sweeping lullaby for 13 instruments that was never meant for public performance; Wagner penned it as a birthday present for his wife Cosima, and only published it when in the most dire financial straits--in other words, not the bombastic, bosom-shaking Wagner of Apocalypse Now and Classical Thunder.

On the far opposite end of the spectrum, the Haydn symphony is the triumphant namesake to a 12-symphony series composed by Haydn over 10 years. It combines fanfare-like themes with humorous instrumentation, technical vigor and elements of Croatian folk tunes for an effect that is both majestic and lighthearted. "You could take every nice thing I've said about Ju-Young Baek, triple it, and that is what I have to say about the London Symphony," raves Ogle. Factor in what is likely our last opportunity to witness the bourgeoning talent of Baek in Boise, and the BP's second performance this season and you've got a can't-miss cultural event well worth its price tag--which, for those who are in-the-know enough to attend the dress rehearsal, is only $10.

Boise Philharmonic featuring Ju-Young Baek, October 23, dress rehearsal 10 a.m. ($10, $5 students/seniors); evening performance 8:15 p.m., ($22-$49), The Morrison Center, Boise State campus. Tickets at 344-7849.

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