Sunday, February 1, 2009

Iwasaki makes smashing debut with the Oregon Symphony

There was a heightened sense of occasion in the air Saturday night at the Arlene Schnitzer concert hall. Jun Iwasaki, the gifted 26-year-old concertmaster of the Oregon Symphony, gave a smashing performance of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Violin Concerto. Combining pinpoint accuracy with emotional understanding, Iwasaki revealed the beauty of this lush, Romantic work and made it sparkle. Together with oustanding playing by his colleagues in the orchestra, Iwasaki swept the audience off of its feet and received a sustained standing ovation.

But it wasn’t just the performance by Iwasaki and the orchestra in the Korngold that made the evening so remarkable. The orchestra, led by music director and conductor Carlos Kalmar, was at the top of its game in every piece on the program. The ensemble gave superbly nuanced interpretations of Mozart’s March in C major and his Symphony No. 40 in G minor as well as a very evocative rendition of “Salome’s Dance” from Richard Strauss’ opera “Salome.” It would be easy to gush all over the place about the orchestra’s performance, because it was so damn good.

I really liked the way that Iwasaki came almost to the lip of the stage for the Korngold concerto. The few extra steps forward helped to connect him with the audience and it also probably helped with the sound projection from his violin, because he could easily get washed out by the big waves of sound from the orchestra. He displayed fantastic artistry throughout the piece, whether maneuvering through devilishly tricky cadenzas or capturing a wistful mood with a sweet, silky tone or applying a zing in the middle of a dance.

The orchestra got plenty of licks in as well. Niel DePonte’s playing on the xylophone shimmered just right. The sound from flutists David Buck and Alicia DiDonato Paulsen pirouetted gracefully at one point in the third movement. All of the strings joined Iwasaki with bows going up and out on the last note – it was sonically and visually appealling.

The concert began with a little known march by Mozart. Yet it was a mini gem, because it contained wonderfully contrasting themes that this orchestra played with élan. Just when I caught onto the playful and spirited theme, the orchestra would shift to the one that was more lyrical. It seemed almost a shame that it had to end after five minutes, but that’s all that Mozart gave us.

Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, on the other hand, is a very well-known work, and the cool thing about the orchestra’s playing was how Kalmar and Company made it sound so fresh and inviting. They gave a wonderfully nuanced interpretation in the way that they chose to emphasize some notes here and there and with precise, totally unified playing – especially in the demanding passages for the strings. The woodwinds and horns were terrific also, and, the first movement of this piece was played so well that the audience broke into applause. Actually, the audience might have been somewhat stunned, because it was absolutely quiet throughout. I did not hear one cough. Everyone seemed to be listening very intently and genuinely moved by the work at the end. You would think that the 21st Century would be too jaded for Mozart, but that it not so when an orchestra rises to the top level.

Although it could have relaxed and cooled its heels, the orchestra captured the last piece on the program, Strauss’ “Salome’s Dance,” with a very evocative performance. The orchestra, delving into the sinuous music, successfully created the lurid atmosphere, even the waltz-like passages had a sinister, almost grotesque feel. Among the many highlights of the concert was the playing of principal violist Joël Belgique, principal flutist David Buck, and principal oboist Martin Hebert.


Before the concert began, Kalmar presented the 2009 Patty Vemer Music Educator of the Year Award to Donna Kagan, who teaches music at Stafford Primary School in the West Linn-Wilsonville School District. Kagan directs two choirs with more than 100 members, several student musicals, and the summer music and drama camp for students in kindergarten through the fifth grade. It’s great to hear about the work of teachers like Kagan and to recognize their efforts with an award and a gift of $1,000.

Another note: in the audience I sat next to a board member who told me that 700 people attended the dress rehearsal on Saturday morning. That was one of the largest dress rehearsal crowds in quite a while.

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