Sometimes it is interesting to see which guest artist makes the biggest impression at a concert. The Oregon Symphony offered an interesting choice at its concert on Saturday, January 26th, at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. On the one hand, virtuoso violinist Viviane Hagner made her debut with the orchestra in playing Unsuk Chin’s Violin Concerto. On the other, veteran conductor Markus Stenz made his debut on the podium, balancing the new work with two evergreens: Beethoven’s First Symphony, and Schumann’s Third.
Chin’s Violin Concerto, written in 2001, was divided into four movements denoted purely by beats per minute. But the tempo didn’t matter all that much, because the piece seemed to move all over the place, with Hagner spending most of her time in the upper register of her instrument. She created a huge array of sounds – from edgy, almost shrill to gnawing to glassy glissandos to quiet, simple notes – but no discernable melodic phrases – not even a snatch of one. The whole piece seemed to be more of an intellectual sonic exploration, and it was fascinating to hear the various episodes. The second movement had moments that sounded ethereal and sort of like a music box. The third featured an extended pizzicato section for the orchestra. At the beginning of the piece Hagner generated quiet tones that seemed to rise from out of a cloud of sound from the orchestra, and at the end of the piece, her sound became placid and was subsumed by general orchestral sound. Perhaps that phoenix-like emergence and extinguishment was meant as a metaphor for contemporary life.
To counter the edgy complexity of the Violin Concerto, Hagner played an encore from Bach’s solo sonatas and partitas for violin. Her performance sounded immaculate, eloquent, and full of inner light that just took one’s breath away.
As part of his introductory remarks to the audience, Stenz gave a short music class in regards to the opening of the last movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No 1 and how revolutionary it was. Stenz encouraged the audience to shout “Bam” and count the next sequence of beats – following his every gesture. Later, during the performance of the symphony, some of the audience members chuckled when they recognized the section of music that Stenz had taught.
The orchestra performed Beethoven’s First Symphony superbly. The fast passages were light and immaculate played. Each instrumental part seemed to be perfectly balanced. The dynamics offered wonderful contrasts and the tempos were spot on.
Schumann’s Third Symphony also received an outstanding outing. In the first movement, the French Horn section created a glowing sound, the trumpets were crisp, the violins energetic. And so the exceptional playing continued through the rest of the piece with a nod again to the terrifically balanced sound, sensitivity to dynamics, tempos, and just a sense of delivering the poetry of the music.
For each piece, Stenz eschewed the baton. His style at times suggested sculpting the air, and he was gifted at doing so with either hand. With the Beethoven and Schumann, he didn’t worry about keeping a clear beat; instead, he seemed to use his gesture to shape of music in a poetic way. Often the last note of a movement ended up with his right arm extended straight ahead and upwards.
The music lesson that Stenz gave at the beginning of the concert connected well with the crowd. A couple of my friends afterwards indicated that they liked his approach. It would be swell to hear him return to the podium and find out how he could reach out to the audience again. For that matter, it would be wonderful to bring back Hagner to hear her again as well.