Erich Korngold’s Violin Concerto received an incisive and transcendent performance by Gil Shaham in a special one-time only concert with the Oregon Symphony on Sunday afternoon (April 2) at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Shaham, one of the world’s preeminent violinists, expertly conveyed the lush and lyrical landscape of Korngold’s concerto, demonstrating a rich tone that often was a smooth as a silk handkerchief. His flawless technique and mastery of the dynamics made the piece sing, yet it all worked so well because of extremely sensitive playing by the orchestra under the direction of Carlos Kalmar. Perhaps the most memorable moment of the piece came at the end of the second movement, “Romance,” when his final note was matched perfectly by vibraphone as played by Niel DePonte. That was heavenly. A thunderous standing ovation brought Shaham back to the stage several times, and he responded with an immaculately played encore, the “Gavotte en rondeau” by Bach.
The Korngold concerto was the centerpiece of a program that danced around the music of fin de siècle Vienna. That included two pieces that received their initial performances by the orchestra: the Overture to Richard Heuberger’s “The Opera Ball” and the Overture to Johan Strauss, Jr.’s “Indigo and the Forty Thieves.” Both were played with exuberance by Kalmar and company with lots of attention to details such as slowing the pace and then speeding up. “The Opera Ball” featured melodic lines that glided effortlessly about that hall and delightful phrases that cascaded quickly down a staircase. The 12 strikes of a bell signaled midnight solemnly but then everything broke loose with a dance tune swirling about. The Strauss, Jr. Overture was also totally delightful with swelling melodic passages, a light brigade of brass, and scintillating march.
After intermission came Franz von Suppé’s “Poet and Peasant” Overture followed by Josef Strauss’s “Dynamite Waltzes.” Nancy Ives superbly delivered the intimate and almost sentimental cello solo passages, which were a terrific set up for the bombastic and furious second part of the piece (associated forever in many American minds with some cartoon characters). That extroverted piece contrasted well with the “Dynamite Waltzes,” which despite its title (well, the real title was “Mysterious Powers of Magnetism”) was more sedate and refined.
As Kalmar mentioned in his introduction, the “Dynamite Waltzes” contained a couple of lines that Richard Strauss stole and modified for his opera “Der Rosenkavalier.” The orchestra played the Suite from that opera with gusto, excelling in sudden shifts in the dynamics and a brilliantly polished sound. Principal oboist Martin Hébert stole the spotlight with his exceptional playing, but Concertmaster Sarah Kwak and Principal Horn John Cox also set the bar high with their fine contributions.
In his introductory remarks before the concert, Scott Showalter, the orchestra’s President and CEO, announced that its annual gala raised over a million dollars. That is excellent news and should go a long way to help bring Shaham back to Portland some day in the near future. A gap of 24 years has flown by since Shaham last appeared here with the Oregon Symphony… which is too long of a dry spell.