Monday, January 14, 2008

From brutality to serenity and magic: Oregon Symphony with conductor Vajda and pianist Fliter traverse a wide soundscape

The Oregon Symphony opened its first concert of the new year with a bang, presenting a wide-ranging program of music by Bela Bartók, Claude Debussy, Frederic Chopin, and Paul Dukas. Resident Conductor Gregory Vajda directed the concert superbly, using a baton rather than his hands, which I had never seen him do before. Argentinean pianist Ingrid Fliter, the 2006 Gilmore Artist Award winner, was outstanding as the featured soloist.

The concert began with Bartók’s “The Miraculous Mandarin,” which marked this orchestra’s first-ever performance of this challenging piece. Supertitles gave the audience the gist of the story, which tells how three thugs use a girl to lure men in order to rob them. The final victim is Mandarin who is suffocated, stabbed, and hanged, but doesn’t die until the girl embraces him. In a way, this piece is Bartók’s meditation on love and death, except that the love part of the story gets shortchanged.

Vajda guided the orchestra expertly through the turbulent waters of this piece and its myriad of changes in meter. All of the nasty sounds and the thrashing about gave the impression that the instruments were playing against each other at least half the time, yet the brutality of the music matched the story perfectly. The snarling trombones, the furious strings, the wailing woodwinds, and the merciless percussion were impressive. The smeared piano roll captured the ghostly suspension of the Mandarin’s body from a light fixture. After the piece ended I wanted to knock back some absinth or take a plunge in a swimming pool, but alas I couldn’t find either in the lobby.

The orchestra and audience regrouped after intermission for Debussay’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.” The languid and almost serene mood conveyed by the orchestra did a lot to help soothe the nerves after the Bartók. Principal flutist David Buck and principal oboist Martin Hebert played marvelously. The only time that the overall sonic impression seemed to flatten out and go nowhere occurred during an exposed section for the lower strings, and that may have been due to the acoustical shortcomings of the hall, which are well known.

Chopin’s second piano concerto brought in another breath of fresh air. Fliter appeared a bit fidgety during the long orchestral introduction, but once her fingers touched the keys, she showed all of the artistry of a truly great pianist. Her sound was well-balanced, her sense of pacing and contours within passages was amazing. Fliter created an assortment of moods that welcomed us to her view of Chopin’s music and kept us mesmerized until the very end.

The program ended with a Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”. Vajda and the orchestra gave the piece a lot of dramatic flair, reveling in the wit of this whimsical nature of the music. I loved the pauses, which Vajda masterfully controlled and envied the bassoon section, which had a lot of fun in performing this piece.

Post Script: The hall was fairly full; so that continues an upward trend for the orchestra. A very good sign!

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