Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Review of the Oregon Symphony's Italian concert

The Oregon Symphony transported us to Italy, performing Antonio Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” Edward Elgar’s “In the South,” and Hector Berlioz’s “Roman Carnival Overture.” I attended the concert on Sunday night (December 2nd), and was treated to an outstanding concert by the orchestra and its guest soloist Eilina Vähälä. Here's my take on what I heard.

Pared down to a lean chamber ensemble of 21, the orchestra delivered a remarkably expressive and crisp rendition of Vivaldi's gem with the beautiful, Finnish violinist Eilina Vähälä as the soloist. Vähälä performed with impeccable, breath-taking control and dynamics that made this piece come alive as if it had never been played before. Accompanying her with the utmost attention to subtle nuances, the orchestra blended perfectly in support of Vähälä artistry, and together they created convincing tableaux of bucolic landscapes in their seasonal guises.

Artistic director Carlos Kalmar led with his hand rather than with a baton, which worked to keep the music soft, such as when the shepherd slept and a dog barked in the background. The slashing rainfall during the summer thunderstorm and the icy winter storm was thrilling as the sound raked the stage. Vähälä and the ensemble wonderfully evoked the peasant’s dance, hunting scene, and other summer pleasures before slipping away into the bitter chill of winter. Harpsichordist Sue Jensen and principal cellist Nancy Ives played superbly throughout.

Vähälä made a terrific case for herself as a violinist to be reckoned with. I hope that she will return to Portland to inspire us again.

I didn’t care for Les Sarnoff’s style of narration of the accompanying sonnets. His voice was pleasant but too avuncular, so all of the words seemed to be coated with sugar.

The second half of the program began with a brilliant sweep of sound that introduces Elgar’s "In the South." Sometimes this part of the piece makes me think that it had been written by Richard Strauss, but Elgar takes us down a path that is entirely his own. The orchestra wielded a generous palate of colors and painted a rich and varried soundscape.

At one point, melancholic and lyrical passages faded away before the orchestra threw itself into big blocks of sound. I thought of a giant walking across a valley floor, but apparently Elgar meant this passage to convey ancient, warlike, Roman troops as described in a poem by Tennyson. In any case, the masculine theme rumbled off into the distance, and we are left to wander in a daze until the strings picked us up and escorted us onward.

Principal violist Joël Belgique’s solo in the third section was exquisite, and the violins added a nice layer of sweetness. Overall, this piece showed a lot of exciting energy and drive. The woodwind and brass, especially principal French horn John Cox and principal clarinetist Yoshinori Nakao, played outstandingly from beginning to end.

I would normally think of opening the concert with the “Roman Carnival Overture” by Berlioz, but by concluding the program with this piece, Kalmar and company convincingly capped off the evening with a shower of sonic fireworks. Harris Orem played the English horn solo with pure, plaintive beauty. I also enjoyed how principal flutist David Buck and principal oboist Martin Hebert finished each other's conversations seamlessly. Also, contrasts between the quiet, thoughtful passages and the festive eruptions were marvelous. The audience in the Schnitz, which seemed to be close to 90 percent full, soaked up the final chords with gusto.

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