I have been so busy lately, that I’m now just getting around to posting this review. A week ago (Sunday, September 30th) I heard the Oregon Symphony’s season opening concert. The Schnitz seemed to be nearly 95% full, and the atmosphere buzzed in anticipation of the program, which featured two crowd-pleasing pieces: Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and Richard Strauss’s “Also sprach Zarathustra.”
The concert opened with Dvorak’s “Symphonic Variations,” a complicated work that has 27 variations on a main theme. I liked the clean and crisp playing by the violin section, and that seemed to speak well of the concertmaster Jun Iwasaki. Iwasaki also had at least one solo in this piece, and he handled each passage very fluidly with excellent tone.
In the hands of some conductors, the “Symphonic Variations” could become a real bore, but Kalmar and the orchestra worked well together to give this piece some shape. Each variation tickled our ears with something different and unique. The piece culminated with a big, Bohemian-sounding (or Dvorak-sounding) fugue that had a tremendous fanfare-like blast.
I’m sure that Valentina Lisitsa has played the Rach 2 many times, but she surprised everyone by pouncing on the opening notes a little too fiercely. I think that she hit the bass so loudly that it caused the piano to sound out of tune. So, some of us in the audience got a little jumpy during the first passage, but Lisitsa, being the artist that she is, got it all under control and delivered a very inspired, poetic performance the rest of the way. I saw people leaping out of their seats at the end of the finale, and jubilation erupted from every corner.
The orchestra accompanied her elegantly, and, as usual, principal clarinetist Yoshinori Nakao, poured out the liquid, clear lines that are a pure delight to hear. I also admired how the bassoon or bassoons could play lithely in their upper register. Plus the slight shimmer of sound that Niel DePonte gets from the small cymbals adds oh so much to the magical quality of this work.
Following intermission, the orchestra gave a stirring and vigorous interpretation of Strauss’s massive tone poem. The two tubas and the battalion of trumpets, trombones, and horns made sure that the opening statement was grand, but it was also crisp and delineated. I really enjoyed hearing the sound reduce or distill down to the bass fiddles – only to watch the sound grow again gradually adding the cellos, then one bassoon, then the second violins, the violas, all bassoons, the first violins, and finally everyone else.
I heard a lot of great playing from everyone, and it was fun to watch Iwasaki and associate concertmaster Peter Frajola work together during the Viennese waltz.
I did note to myself that the flute section didn’t look quite right, because Martha Herby wasn’t playing. It is with much sadness to hear the news that she died just a few days ago. The opening concert was dedicated to the memory of Symphony benefactor Jean Vollum, and I’m sure that the next set of concerts (Oct. 13-15) will be dedicated to Herby.