Monday, January 27, 2014

Kwak fires off superb Wieniawski / Oregon Symphony at the top of its game in Sibelius 1/ Glanert's "Shoreless River" mesmerizing

Detlev Glanert
Sarah Kwak, the concertmaster of the Oregon Symphony, was outstanding in her debut on January 18th as the featured guest artist with the orchestra, playing Henryk Wieniawski’s Second Violin Concerto to perfection. The orchestra also unleashed a scintillating performance of Jan Sibelius’s First Symphony and also gave its first performance of Detlev Glanert’s “Shoreless River.” It was another superb showing at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall by the orchestra, which continues to play at a top tier level under its music director Carlos Kalmar.

Besides being one of the great violinists of the 19th Century, Wieniawski somehow found time to fit composing into a demanding schedule that involved teaching and performing in Europe and Russia. His Violin Concerto No. 2 in D minor is considered the most popular of the two violin concertos that he wrote, and with Kwak, in her performance, gave it a masterful interpretation. She shaded the melodic phrases in all sorts of engaging ways: from sleek and graceful to thicker and more robust. She impeccably fired off passages filled with double-stops and rapid, staccato notes. The gypsy-imbued rhythms and themes were spirited and a real treat to hear.

The orchestra’s rendition of Sibelius’s Symphony No. 1 was so outstanding that it practically gleamed. Whether it was an exposed solo, a small ensemble in one section or across sections, or the entire orchestra, it seemed that all of the musicians played at the highest level possible. Starting with principal clarinetist Yoshinori Nakao’s solo that created a sense of longing, floating lines from flutes, a rushing tide of sound by trumpets and horns, a dramatic combo of timpani and pizzicato-ing violins, the first movement was loaded with terrific sonic thrills. Highlights from the second movement included the melancholic lines from the violins, the fleeting and pensive solo by principal cellist Nancy Ives, the playful sound from the woodwinds and the brilliant sound of the brass section. The third movement was accented by furious plucking sound form the cellos, a soulful cry from the horns, and a bold statement from the brass. The entire orchestra created a tragic atmosphere in the fourth that faded out until only the bass violins were carrying the weight of it all. The final calm passage and transition into a stormy and defiant ending was mesmerizing.

The concert began with “Fluss ohne Ufer” (“Shoreless River”), a new work by German composer Detlev Glanert, which received its premiere in 2009. It is a very moody and impressionistic work. Tubular bells followed by extremely quiet sounds from the bass violins and timpani gradually establish a sonic fog. The cellos join with questioning phrases. The rest of the orchestra slowly falls into playing until the music becomes louder and higher. Concertmaster Peter Frajola briefly accented it all with a narrow, but not piercing high note and that was followed by a veritable sonic whirlwind from all forces. The whirlwind transitioned into a complex subterfuge of sorts until it was swept up by a groundswell of sound that burst out and exploded like fireworks with lots of percussion and percussive sounds going off in every direction. Next came a mysterious tone from principal oboist Marty Hebert, followed by flutes that created the sound of lightly rustling leaves. Kyle Mustain’s English horn solo established a wandering line which held forth again a blur from the violins. Somewhere along the way principal violist Joël Belgique prodded everything with the aggressive solo, and he was joined by the violas and brass. After another blast from the orchestra came an ominous passage from the brass, which then fell into a heavy rhythm. Next came yet another blast followed by a discordant cry. Principal timpanist Jonathan Greeney used all six timpani, but then the sound died away until only two harps could be heard. A high-pitched duet by Frajola and Erin Furbee brought in the rest of the orchestra, but that sound faded away until all you could hear in the final measures were the tubular bells that started the piece.

I have to admit that I really enjoyed hearing Glanert’s “Shoreless River.” It seemed to describe things that were close and distant, perhaps inside and outside as well. It was absolutely engaging to hear all of the sonic qualities of this piece. Perhaps the orchestra will be able to record it sometime in the near future.

Before the concert began, Kalmar brought Kathryn Gray to the front of the stage. Gray retired from the orchestra after playing in the violin section for 36 years. She received a very long round of applause from all corners of the hall.

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