Gregory Vajda, resident conductor of the Oregon Symphony stepped in for music director Carlos Kalmar last Saturday and did some terrific conducting. Apparently, Kalmar was under the weather, so Vajda directed the challenging program that included Leonard Bernstein's Overture to Candide, Kurt Weill's The Seven Deadly Sins, Aaron Copland's Music for the Theatre, and George Gershwin's An American in Paris.
The concert began with the playing of the Nimrod movement from Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations as a memorial to the two young musicians who recently died in a car accident. I got the impression that Vajda started out with a case of nerves because he rushed as he read from a piece of paper and and asked the audience to refrain from applauding. But once he started conducting the piece, it was unhurried and smooth and full of melancholy. This is a piece that works well for Vadja because he directs without a baton and the calming effect of his hands seemed to make the playing very gentle.
Vadja displayed some energetic conducting when he launched into Candide, and the orchestra responded very well. I think that the softer passages could've been quieter and perhaps there could've been more variation in the tempi, but all in all, this was a real success.
When Vadja gave his talk to the audience about the remaining pieces, he was very funny, and I couldn't help but to recall Murry Sidlin, the former resident conductor of the orchestra. Vadja has a real knack for humor, his comic timing is innate, and he can quickly win the audience to his point of view. I only wished that he had told us who the guest concertmaster was. Perhaps we will find out later.
Vadja then led the orchestra in Weill's masterpiece, which skillfully combines irony and longing with a dash of humor. Soprano Lisa Vroman in the Anna, the woman with a double-sided personality, sang wonderfully throughout, and her German diction was terrific. The men who represented Anna's family sang music that evoked a sort of corrupted barbershop quartet. Bass baritone Richard Zeller, in particular, stood out as the "mother" and wore a French maid's apron over his tuxedo to boot. It seemed to me that when tenors David Gustafson and John Kolbet and baritone Kenneth Smithfield were miked when they sang their solo passages, but I wasn't sure.
Many members of the orchestra got a chance to show off their talents in Copland's Music for the Theatre. I loved Jeffrey Work and David Bamonte's trumpeting, Martin Hebert's elegant oboe passages, Todd Kuhns' woody clarinet, and the sassy brass sections.
Someone in the audience sneezed loudly three times at the end of the Interlude movement right when English Hornist Harris Orem played a delicate solo passage. After the movement finished, Vadja turned around and shouted "Bless you!" What a great response!
The performance of Gershwin's An American in Paris went very well, but it seemed that the slower passages could've been a little bit slower and most of the piece was medium loud to very loud.
All in all, I think that what Vadja accomplished was exceptional, and it's great to know that the Oregon Symphony can call upon him at the last moment to fill some big shoes.