Monday, March 9, 2015

Virtuosic playing by Maia Hoffman in Walton’s Viola Concerto highlights PYP concert

Violist Maia Hoffman
Maia Hoffman gave an astonishingly beautiful performance of William Walton’s Viola Concerto on Saturday evening (March 7) in the Portland Youth Philharmonic’s Winter Concert at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Considering that Hoffman is just a senior at Wilson High School, “astonishingly beautiful” might be an understatement. “Dazzling” and “superb” are two other superlatives that come to mind, yet fall short of describing Hoffman’s performance.

One of the great things about Hoffman’s playing was that she created a compelling storyline for the concerto. It could’ve been just a flashy piece with a lot of technical jujitsu for the soloist, but Hoffman took the audience on a musical journey that travelled from a an unhurried and smooth state past episodic ones that altered between frenetic and meandering passages before concluding with a feeling that was meditative and restful. Along the way, Hoffman delved into a sweeping palate of sounds that ranged from warm and lyrical to brusque and marcato. Her impeccable playing included a myriad of double stops and quick-silver runs that looked devilishly treacherous. Hoffman’s deft fingerwork made it all look completely natural, including an impressive zing on the fast moving notes at the end of the second movement.

The orchestra, under musical director David Hattner, supported Hoffman with expert attention to dynamics, making sure not to drown out the soloist especially during the louder passages. The snappy articulation from the entire ensemble at the beginning of the second movement was particularly impressive. The principal flutist and principal bassoonist contributed brief solos with distinction. Overall, Hoffman, Hattner, and the orchestra collaborated with panache to turn this relatively unknown work into a winner and a standing ovation.

The concert began with a marvelous account of the Symphony No. 3 of Johannes Brahms. After the strong opening statement, the orchestra negotiated its way through the thick stew of Brahms’ music. The woodwinds were a bit brittle at the beginning of the first movement, but they produced a relaxed, warm tone after the recapitulation of the main themes. Excellent interplay and blend between the woodwinds, horns, and lower strings along with a resonant yet soft brass choir highlighted the second movement. The cellos and violins wonderfully brought out the elegiac melody at the start of the third movement and the principal horn aced his exposed passage. The entire ensemble generated organic crescendos and decrescendos in the fourth movement and, skillfully guided by Hattner, brought the piece to a gentle finale.

The concert closed with a spirited performance of Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” in the 1919 version. The lower strings established a sense of utter darkness and as the orchestral forces gradually joined in to evoke the palace of the evil ogre Kastchei. Wonderful contributions by the woodwinds (with kudos to the principals) created the mercurial firebird and the lovely princesses who played in Kastchei’s garden. The “Infernal Dance of King Kashchei” moved along well, but it would have been even better if it could have been wilder and looser. The lush strings and the restful sounds of the principal oboe and English horn added sweetness to the “Lullaby.” The principal French horn and principal flute summoned the orchestra to swell into a bravura finish that generated cheers a echoing bravos from the audience. Indeed, the young and talented members of the Portland Youth Philharmonic deserved high marks for their performance of this difficult piece, and Hattner was brought back to the stage a couple of times in appreciation for what he and the orchestra accomplished.

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