Sunday, February 15, 2009

Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra concert celebrates with youthful artistry

Huw Edwards, music director and conductor of the Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra has a knack for finding outstanding young artists and displaying their talent on stage. This time, for the PCSO concert on Friday evening, two teens demonstrated artistic abilities way beyond their years. The orchestra played a superb new work by 19-year-old composer Taylor Brizendine, and 17-year-old pianist Rosa Li swept the audience away with her performance of Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Both pieces were highlights in a concert that featured some fine playing by the orchestra of works by Brahms, Mahler, and Tchaikovsky as well.

Brizedine, who grew up in Oregon but is now studying at the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles, has written many pieces which have been performed by such ensembles as the California Institute of the Arts Chamber Orchestra, the Portland Youth Philharmonic chamber music series, and the Oregon Pro Arte Youth Chamber Orchestra. The PCSO commissioned Brizedine to write a piece in honor of Oregon’s 150th birthday, and he responded with the “Hymn of the Earth,” a short work that engaged the audience with a variety of sonic textures.

“Hymn of the Earth” began softly with exposed passages for the harp and xylophone. Other members of the orchestra gradually joined in to create a sense of awakening and a much larger, fuller sound. After a brief, lyrical solo by concertmaster Dawn Carter, the music became more fragmented as if sections of the orchestra were commenting on each other. After a descending bass line got underway, tension seemed to mount. A rebuilding process took place, bolstered by trumpet calls, and the piece ended with flourish with gongs and a feeling of hopefulness.

The audience, which had filled First United Methodist, almost to capacity, appeared thoroughly engaged with Brizedine’s music and gave this piece a solid round of applause. It will be interesting to follow his career as a composer and see how his music progresses.

Next on the program was Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concert with Li as the soloist. Playing the entire piece from memory, Li gave a polished performance with a special attention to detail, especially in the way that she accented some notes even though her fingers were racing up and down the keyboard. Li, a veteran winner of many competitions, negotiated all of the trills and filigree of this difficult work gracefully and made it look as if she were completely at home in front of an orchestra. Wow!

The concert began with Brahms “Academic Festival Overture,” the orchestra played very well with lots of expression. Each section of the orchestra had passages in which its members excelled as an ensemble. The orchestral blend was excellent, the crescendos and decrescendos sounded organic, and the uptempo ending made the entire piece work well as a whole.

In its performance of the “Adagietto” from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, the orchestra achieved a soft, lush sound that was exquisite most of the time, yet it came under duress here and there because of intonation problems in the strings. Overall, guided by some fine conducting by Edwards, this piece still had plenty of beauty to make it very satisfying to the ears.

The concert ended with Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy-Overture from “Romeo and Juliet.” This piece needed just a little more intensity to heighten the contrasts between the melodic themes and the violent ones. Still, the last part of the piece was heavenly. Kudos to principal horn Jen Harrison, principal trumpet Mike Hankins, and principal timpani Craig Johnston for their outstanding playing.

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