Friday, December 13, 2013

Oregon Symphony shines under conductor Thierry Fischer and with violinist Elina Vähälä

The Oregon Symphony combined with Swiss conductor Thierry Fischer and Finnish violinist Elina Vähälä to give an exceptional concert of works by Sergei Prokofiev, Magnus Lindberg, and Pyotr Llyich Tchaikovsky at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Monday, December 9th.  Fischer, who conducts the Utah Symphony made an excellent debut with the orchestra, and Vähälä, in this return engagement, again impressed everyone with her impeccable artistry – this time with a piece that was probably brand new to everyone in the audience.
Magnus Lindberg is a Finnish composer might be confused with Christian Lindberg the Swedish trombonist/composer/conductor.  Besides having the same last name, both were born in 1958 with Christian being four months older. We can at least rest assured that neither composer will be mixed up with former Portland City Commissioner Mike Lindberg.
Using a chamber ensemble of strings, two oboes, two bassoon, and two horns, Lindberg’s Violin Concerto has an intimate atmosphere, but demands the utmost intensity from all performers.  Another unusual aspect of this work, written in 2006, is that it is divided into three movements that are denoted with time signatures rather than the titles like adagio and scherzo.
This concert marked Vähälä’s fourth appearance with the Oregon Symphony. She performed Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” in 2007 (reviewed here) , Britten’s Violin Concerto in 2010 (reviewed here), and Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto in 2011 (reviewed here). With Lindberg’s Violin Concerto, Vähälä again brought great intensity and technique. She executed numerous, very fast downward and upward scales that were imbued with little glissando-like effects. The clear, crystalline tones that she elicited from the upper register of her violin took the audience into a soundscape that went back and forth from serene to agitated. Here and there she would engage in a conversation with the orchestra, as if to inspire or cajole them along the way.
Vähälä’s performance was supported by an orchestra that was equally engaged. It seemed that at one point the bass violin section had to play at the top of their registers, and the end of the piece did end in a scherzo-like fashion with everyone on stage playing at hyper speed. The audience became so caught up in the performance that you could have heard a pin drop. Overall, Lindberg’s Violin Concerto is an impressive piece, and time will tell if it enters the standard repertoire.
The concert opened with a scintillating performance of the Symphonic Suite from Prokofiev’s opera “The Love for Three Oranges.”  The orchestra, under the magic of Fischer’s baton, created all sorts of sonic colors that changed from fanfare-like swirls to delicate layers of sound followed by sudden bursts and rumbling that crashed together – and that was just in the first selection, entitled “The Ridiculous One.”  You didn’t need to know the story of the opera or the names of the movements to be entertained by this work. Snarling trumpets and trombones, liquid smooth woodwinds, pummeling timpani, exciting decrescendos and crescendos , wild accelerandos, and virtuosic ensemble playing by the entire ensemble combined to make the Symphonic Suite mesmerizing.
For second half of the concert, the orchestra gave a stellar performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. Even though each member of the orchestra has probably played this piece a hundred times, Fischer seemed to find a way to engage them and the piece sounded absolutely fresh.  The tempos never dragged and the very full-Russian chords didn’t have any heaviness. Even though Fischer never pointed much at various sections or principals of the ensemble when it was their time to shine, he still elicited incredible performances from everyone. Highlights included the super smooth and sweet sound from principal bassoonist Evan Kuhlmann, the pillowy soft touch that principal timpanist Jonathan Greeney applied, principal clarinetist Yoshinori Nakao’s liquid and languid phrases, and the sparkling piccolo of Zachariah Galatis.
There must have been something extra special going on between the orchestra and Fischer, because concertmaster Sarah Kwak refused to get up when Fischer came out for the second round of applause, allowing Fischer to receive the applause all by himself. He, or course, continued and finally succeeded in getting Kwak (and the orchestra) to stand, but this was a terrific thing to see, and I have to admit that I’ve never seen it before at an Oregon Symphony. I have only seen this one time, and that was when Gustavo Dudamel conducted the Israeli Philharmonic in, yes, Tchaikovsky’s 4th at Carnegie Hall in 2008 reviewed here.) That puts Fischer in good company.
Postscript: In his introductory comments to the concert, principal percussionist Niel DePonte mentioned that there are 193 cymbal crashes (all in the 4th movement) of the Tchaikovsky. During the performance, I started to count them and got to 114 before DePonte began crashing them (little crashes) so fast that I could keep up. He has remarkable hand and wrist strength - much like a professional athlete.

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