Friday, October 16, 2015

Gluzman blazes in ecstatic performance of Gubaidulina's "Offertorium" in Oregon Symphony concert

Vadim Gluzman Photo: Marco Borggreve
Ever since he took over the Oregon Bach Festival from Helmuth Rilling two years ago, Matthew Halls has increased his appearances at the podium of orchestras in North America and Europe. So it was high time that the British conductor made his debut with the Oregon Symphony at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on October 10th. Drawing on his background in Baroque music, Halls put together an intriguing program that offered Beethoven’s Third Symphony, Bach’s “Ricecare” a la Anton Webern, and Sofia Gubaidulina’s “Offertorium,” which featured violinist Vadim Gluzman. Gluzman’s ecstatic performance of the Gubaidulina was the highlight of the evening, but Halls didn’t totally connect with the orchestra in the Beethoven and the Bach.

The first two pieces of the program were uniquely linked. A chamber contingent played the “Ricercare” from Bach’s “Musical Offering” in Webern’s arrangement for orchestra. It was executed with pinpoint accuracy so that the notes were traded seamlessly from one colleague to another. The brass instrumentalists, in particular, were quite adept at creating timbres that matched closely.

But Halls was mostly a human metronome. The only real dynamic contrast was at the very end of the piece when he slowed the pace slightly and raised the volume; so the piece seemed mostly academic.

In sharp contrast, Gubaidulina’s “Offertorium” violin concerto was very expansive and moving. The piece, inspired by Webern’s arrangement of Bach, started in the same way with the trombone leading off, then went down a different path in which themes and variations were explored by both soloist Gluzman and the orchestra, a full-sized contingent that took up most of the stage. Playing with utmost conviction, Gluzman created all sorts of unusual sounds, from those that fluttered in the stratosphere to slip-sliding tones to agitated slashes that were filled with double-stops.

The orchestra also played incisively and fashioned a variety of statements, sometimes seemingly in response to what Gluzman did. Guided by Halls, the combined forces did offer a musical sacrifice that sort of paralleled the passion of Christ, with violin soloist taking the role of Christ and the orchestra as his followers and/or foes. It all ended with a huge crash and bang followed by Gluzman alone on a pure, ultra-high note.

For Beethoven’s Third, Halls went with a chamber ensemble, pairing the orchestral forces down to five cellos, 8 violas, four basses, and 21 violins, plus winds and brass. After the jolting sforzandos that announced the start of the piece, Halls set a crisp pace, which wasn’t a problem, except that the orchestra went on automatic pilot and actually got ahead of the beat at one point. As a result, some dynamics and colors were not as exciting as they could have been. Still, there were many gem-like moments, especially those created by principal oboist Martin H├ębert, principal bassoonist Carin Miller Packwood, and acting principal flutist Alicia DiDonato Paulsen whose lovely playing was the highlight of the evening.

When Halls returned to the stage to take a bow, Concertmaster Sarah Kwak paid him an extra compliment by not standing so that he could enjoy the applause. Yet many of her colleagues seemed subdued in their reception of the guest conductor. Sometimes the interaction between conductor and orchestra can be a mystery.

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