Thursday, October 29, 2015

Performances by harpist Kondonassis and guest conductor Tortelier sparkle in Oregon Symphony concert

Photo by Mark Battrell
Veering away from the typical violin or piano concerto, the Oregon Symphony decided to do something out of the ordinary by presenting a harp concerto at its concert series this past weekend. So the concert I heard on Saturday evening (October 24) at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall featured Alberto’s Ginastera’s Concerto for Harp and Orchestra with renowned harpist Yolanda Kondonassis. It was refreshing to see and hear the harp front and center on the stage, and Kondanassis, whose career has garnered her accolades galore and given her the moniker of the today’s most recorded classical harpist, gave a gem-like interpretation of Ginastera’s concerto.

The concert marked the Portland debuts of Kondonassis and also of guest conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier. Well-known for his work in Europe, especially as the Chief Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic from 1992 to 2003, Tortelier, recently appointed the new Chief Conductor of the Icelandic Symphony, collaborated well with the Oregon Symphony to create superb performances of the Ginastera concerto as well as Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony and Ravel’s “Alborado del gracioso.”

The Ginastera’s piece had all of the beauty that one would normally imagine with the harp as the solo instrument, but with Kondonassis in command the music went beyond that. In fact, it was fascinating to watch Kondonassis as she strummed the strings to create guitar-like sounds, rapidly picked individual notes that seemed to be all over the place, fashioned glissandi with the nails of her fingers, used the palm of her hand to create a whistling sound, and tapped the frame of her harp to make percussive sounds. Several virtuosic cadenzas transfixed the audience so much that no one coughed or made any noise whatsoever.

The orchestra paid extra attention to Kondonassis, keeping its sound from overwhelming hers almost the entire time. Several unusual duets paired the harpist with percussion (soft mallets on cymbals), various woodwinds, and high whispery violins. Ginastera’s music was inventive and transitory, and made me want to hear more pieces for harp and orchestra. Fortunately, after the very enthusiastic applause faded away, Kondonassis treated the audience to a mesmerizing encore, Carlos Salzedo’s “Song in the Night,” (“Chanson dans la nuit”), which contained a lot of the same extended techniques.

After intermission, the orchestra turned in an incisive and emotionally charged performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. Tortelier’s slightly unconventional conducting style – sans baton and often switching the beat from the right hand to left – probably helped to freshen things up a bit. The orchestra stayed right with him, delivering an array of well-crafted dynamics that included some massive crescendos and tapered decrescendos.

The poignant solo by John Cox, Principal French Horn, during the second movement (“Andante cantabile”) was absolutely stellar. Other highlights included the lovely playing Assistant Principal Clarinetist Todd Kuhns and Principal Bassoonist Carin Miller Packwood in their exposed passages

Ravel’s “Alborado del gracioso” (“The Jester’s Morning Serenade”) received a snappy and spry performance from the orchestra. A combination of wonderful sonic colors, sometimes punctuated by accented notes, terrific decays in volume, and incisive made this piece a witty delight. Precise pointillistic notes from the horns and trumpets and the witty solos from Miller Packwood contributed marvelously, and the Ravel’s music, guided by Tortielier, seemed to dance effortlessly.

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