Monday, June 1, 2009

Review: PSU Symphony plays Saint-Saens, Liszt, Mascagni, others

PSU Symphony director Ken Selden, known for his bold programming choices, offered a concert that was no exception on Sunday afternoon at St. Mary's Academy in downtown Portland. The selections ranged from a world premier student composition to a tone poem by Liszt and cello concerto #1 by Saint-Saens, featuring Hamilton Cheifetz as the soloist.

First up was the West Coast premier of a composition called ZZ's Dream by Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov. It was scored for a chamber orchestra featuring string quartet, contrabass, percussion, winds and harp. One could have hoped for a more auspicious West Coast opening for this piece: the intonation was wanting throughout, and the sparse nature of the composition called for real confidence and deftness that was often lacking both individually and from an ensemble perspective. It seemed that just as the group was getting warmed up and the piece returned to the opening theme, it was over.

The next work, Mardilaul was composed by PSU student Giles Buser-Molatore, winner of the 2009 PSU Symphony Competition. It was based upon an old Finnish folk-tune (called a mardilaul) which found itself tossed back and forth in a round-like fashion between strings and various other instruments. Other than the recurrence of the folk melody the work was very free-form and experimental in nature--there was a lot of homophonic movement within the strings while the tune was bandied about amongst the rest of the orchestra. At one point a shift into 7/8 meter provided an enjoyable rhythmic shakeup. The work was interesting and showed some promise for the composer.

The first half finished with the Saint-Saens concerto. Cheifetz, long-time PSU professor and member of the Florestan Trio, displayed his professionalism and artistic verve once again. He set a torrid pace that the orchestra kept up with admirably for the most part. His playing was bold, lively and rich, very well suited to the soaring romanticism of Saint-Saens' melodic lines. The orchestra played deftly and subtly during the delightful menuetto of the second movement, providing Cheifetz with just the right amount and quality of support. In the final movement the orchestra played their declamatory passages surefootedly, and Cheifetz seemed to be in a zone, displaying remarkable speed and adding a personal touch added to each and every flourish. The whole endeavor was a great success and immensely enjoyable.

The second half opened with Pietro Mascagni's well-known Intermezzo from the Cavalleria Rusticana. The lush, dense texture of this work provided a nice framework for a full orchestral exercise. The orchestra played beautifully, and Selden was able to draw meaning from the many dynamic changes, making it feel like the swelling of a dreamy sea.

The last work on the program was Liszt's Symphonic Poem #10 (Hamlet). This was certainly no beginner's piece, and while not flawless there were many things to enjoy here. The horns had a number of soft, very naked entrances at the beginning that seemed to come out of nowhere, and by and large these came off quite well. There was nice precision from the strings, and the entire ensemble handled the shifting of the melody from one section to another deftly. The work is very sombre and is peppered with rapid and intense mood shifts. Interpreting these accurately requires rapt focus on the part of the ensemble, and the orchestra showed that it has the capability of playing a difficult work like this in a fashion that displays obvious musicianship.

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