Saturday, May 3, 2008

Iwasaki delivers electrifying Sibelius

Many concertgoers have wondered just how good of a violinist is Jun Iwasaki, the concertmaster of the Oregon Symphony. We’ve heard him play exceptionally well as primo violinist of the orchestra, but it’s always in brief snatches whenever he has an exposed solo. Fortunately, at Friday night’s concert with the Portland Columbian Symphony Orchestra, we got to hear the 26-year-old virtuoso perform Jean Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D minor, and it was absolutely amazing.

Iwasaki, who replaced an ailing former OSO concertmaster Amy Schwartz-Moretti as the soloist, played the demanding Allegro moderato, with its two difficult cadenzas with panache. He put a zing on the high notes, gave us exciting changes in tempo and volume, executed nifty glissandos, and made the double stops look easy. Because of the capacity attendance, the hall (First United Methodist Church) became fairly warm and seemed to cause Iwasaki and the orchestra to be a little out of tune with each other at the very end of the first movement. That was quickly resolved by wisely retuning before the Adagio di molto got underway.

Iwasaki and orchestra put a loving, soft touch on the second movement, keeping the sound well-balanced and emotive. I could easily hear him above the swell of the orchestra when it grew louder. The final movement, Allegro, ma non tanto, danced along with a lively, vibrant emotion, and after it ended the entire audience literally leapt to its feet to give Iwasaki a standing ovation and waves of bravos.

The concert began with “Crisantemi” (Chrysantemums) by Giacomo Puccini in honor of his birth 150 years ago. Music director and conductor Huw Edwards and the orchestra captured the moodiness of this beautiful miniature with an excellent blend and clean playing. The light-footed pacing ensured that the music never bogged down.

In the second half of the program, the orchestra played the Symphony No. 1 in C minor by Johannes Brahms. Because of the warmth of the hall, the men of the orchestra didn’t have to wear their jackets. This change in apparel benefited also benefited them because Edwards chose to begin the piece with a very quick tempo. The fast pace, unfortunately, didn’t allow for much buildup later in the first movement. Actually, it seemed that some passages later in the piece were rushed along a bit too much and the music lost some drama.

Aside from some intonation problems here and there, the orchestra played very well. One of the highlights was the duet between concertmaster Dawn Carter and principal French hornist Jill Jaques. Also, principal oboist Brad Hochhalter, principal clarinetist Carolyn Arnquist, and principal flutist Liberty Broillet were exceptional. I loved how the strings added tension in the pizzicato section of the fourth movement, and the horns, in general, played well throughout the piece.

Yet even Brahms’ great symphony couldn’t erase the impact of Iwasaki’s performance in the Sibelius concerto. If you have the chance to hear him play with the Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra on Monday evening at the Gerding Theater at the Armory (in the Pearl district), I highly recommend it.

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