Saturday, March 29, 2008

Review: Columbia Symphony Orchestra plays Strauss, Beethoven, and Gudaitis

The Columbia Symphony Orchestra welcomed two former Portlanders, Amber Gudaitis and Jennifer Choi, back home in a concert on Friday evening at First United Methodist Church. The program featured the world premier of new music by Gudaitis, who is currently studying composition at Arizona State University. Choi, who has been making a name for herself as a violinist in New York City, performed Ludwig van Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. The orchestra also played Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration.

Music director and conductor Huw Edwards has led several orchestras, including the Portland Youth Philharmonic (from 1995 to 2002), and that is where he probably met Gudaitis. Besides ASU, the twenty-five-year-old Gudaitis has studied music at the University of North Texas and the University of Leeds in England. She completed the Columbia River Narrative in 2007 as a work commissioned by the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, and this piece began the evening’s concert.

The Columbia River Narrative is a tone poem that depicts the dramatic and beautiful scenery of the Columbia Gorge. Three harsh chords near the start of the piece certainly helped to paint a panorama with mountains and rugged terrain. This picture was reinforced by the angular sound of the brass, especially from principal trumpeter Mike Hankins. The strings evoked the churning water of the river while the woodwinds captured the wind in the forest. The piece contained dramatic rumblings and some relaxed sonorities, portraying the river as it widens. At the very end, the music vanished suddenly as does the river into the ocean.

The sudden finish left the audience hanging a bit, but it followed up with a solid round of applause. Gudaitis, a lithe, young woman, came out of the audience and shook hands with Edwards and accepted a bouquet. I would like to hear more of her work in the near future.

Next on the program was Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration, Op. 24 (1889), one of his best tone poems, which he wrote at the age of twenty six. The music, in four seamless movements, describes an old man, near death, who looks back on his life, starting with his childhood and proceeding through all of the struggles that he went through, including unattainable goals. At the conclusion of the piece, the old man dies and is transformed into a higher state that wings its way towards eternity.

Under Edwards’ skillful direction, the orchestra captured the varied moods of this demanding work and its large palette of sound. The musicians settled into a delicate, quiet atmosphere at the end of the Largo (The sick man near death) so successfully, that when the timpani signaled the Allegro molto agitato (The battle between life and death offers no respite to the man), that ka-boom visibly jolted several of the members of the audience sitting near me. The ascension of the old man’s soul in the Moderato (The sought-after transfiguration) bloomed with serenity.

Concertmaster Dawn Carter played her solos with a sweet, silky sound. I also enjoyed the harp, played clearly by Elaine Hesselman. The violins sections delivered a clean sound in sensitive passages in which the upper register is crucial. Overall, the piece was a pleasure to hear.

After intermission, Choi joined the orchestra in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61 (1806). Choi has done well in the music scene in New York City. She has premiered and recorded numerous works by John Zorn, Christian Wolfe, Lee Hyla, and Randall Woolf and has toured widely with the Fireworks Ensemble, the Susie Ibarra Trio, and the Sirius String Quartet. Choi performs on a 1770 Lorenzo Storioni.

Choi got off to an excellent start in the Beethoven work. She negotiated all of the tricky, fast passages with verve, the double-stop chords and the treacherous cadenza came across very well. Her playing in the second movement was more assured but needed more nuance. But when Choi jumped to the high note at the start of the third movement, she missed it and had to do a quick recovery. She then settled into some fine playing that was marred here and there with some intonation problems. The sound from the orchestra overwhelmed her a couple of times during the last movement, and the exuberance of the music remained bottled up.


Christine Kim said...

The 3rd movement for me was wonderful and had people sitting behind me in tears. Don't forget about the standing "O" at the end. As a trained musician I can understand the minor intonation slips but I truly felt the heart and soul of the piece and have to disagree with your comment about the "exuberance of the music remained bottled up." Quite the opposite. thanks~Christine

James Bash said...

Thanks Christine for your observations! I was sitting in the back and just didn't get the same feeling that you did. Also, people in the back did stand up at the end, but it wasn't spontaneous.

- James