The young Latvian sensation Baiba Skride performed an achingly beautiful interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with the Oregon Symphony on Saturday evening at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, causing some members of the audience to leave after intermission. But they left with their ears half full because the orchestra followed Skride by playing the heck out of Walton’s Symphony No. 1, giving a tempestuous and thrilling performance of this seldom heard masterpiece.
Since winning first prize at the Queen Elisabeth Competition in 2001, Skride has released five acclaimed recordings and, at the ripe age of 26, is a budding superstar. On stage at the Schnitz, she played the Tchaikovsky with conviction. Each note from her 1725 Stradivarius was impeccably clear and gracefully articulated. Her style seemed unsentimental yet it contained plenty of drama and lyricism. Her playing was full of nuances like slowing down and speeding up with a phrase and varying the pianissimo and fortissimos. Whether she evokes a smooth singing voice or delivered gypsy-like attacks, Skride’s artistry came to the fore. Applause broke out at the end of the first movement and erupted again after the finale. Skride, backed up by outstanding accompaniment from the orchestra, deserved the enthusiastic response, because she gave us Tchaikovsky’s music at its highest level.
It is generally agreed that Walton wrote his First Symphony as a reaction to his failed love affair with a widowed baroness after they had lived together for two years in Switzerland. According to Jim Svedja, “Walton once confessed that in one way or another, all of his major works were ‘about girls.’ So, it may very well be that the anger, resentfulness, and general turmoil of the first two movements of his First Symphony expressed his frustration at being jilted by the baroness. In any case, the Oregon Symphony, led by the incisive conducting of its music director Carlos Kalmar, played all four movements of Walton’s work with unrelenting passion.
Highlights from the first movement included energetic, sweeping sounds from the violins and bright, stirring tone clusters from the brass. Everything somehow dissolved into a forlorn atmosphere that wonderfully paired the woodwinds with principal cellist Nancy Ives before everything turned topsy turvy. Before the end of the movement the orchestra created two huge, loud climaxes and the like a car careening out of control suddenly crashed and burned.
The second movement, marked “Presto, con malizia” (Quickly, with malice), opened with crisp agitation that was followed by sudden bursts of aggressive sounds and dramatic pauses. The third movement contained a long melancholy passage, played with great expression by principal flutist David Buck, which was followed by more plaintive passages from the clarinet and oboe. At some point, the most of the orchestra seemed to gather itself out of the deep part of a canyon of grief, while the violins floated high above. After a soothing, mellow theme from the violas the movement ended quietly but with discontent.
The fourth movement changed the emotional context completely with its dance-like theme. I loved the fugue and the big surges of sound before the vibrant finale in which all of the orchestra members were glued on Kalmar as he dramatically paused before each final chord. As the last sound faded away, an incredibly loud “Bravo” rang out from the balcony and that led the audience to unleash thunderous applause and cheering.
The concert began with Sibelius’ “Scene With Cranes,” a tranquil gem that the orchestra played with great sensitivity. Though it lasts only about five minutes, this short piece, originally composed as part of the incidental music for a play, quickly paints, in hushed tones from the strings, a soft, contemplative soundscape. Exceptional playing by the clarinets created the fleeting impression of cranes. The brief exposed passages, played by concertmaster Jun Iwasaki and principal cellist Nancy Ives, beautifully complemented the strings, which left me with the impression of solitude and wonder.
The Oregon Symphony repeats this program on Monday evening at 8 pm. Don’t miss it.