Friday, January 15, 2016

Breathtaking performance by oboist virtuoso mesmerizes the Oregon Symphony audience

François Leleux signing CDs in the Schnitz lobby (photo by JB)
François Leleux is a name that few local concert goers knew, but after his breathtaking performance last Sunday (January 10th) with the Oregon Symphony, everyone in the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall was probably asking themselves when the orchestra will be able to get him back. Leleux was in town to play Richard Strauss’s “Oboe Concerto,” and his mesmerizing performance was was the highlight of an outstanding concert that featured a Mozart symphony and symphonic poems by Franz Liszt and American John Alden Carpenter.

When Leleux stepped into the spotlight, some folks in the audience probably thought that they could catch a good nap, but Leleux wonderfully made his oboe sing and enjoyed moving about in a way that was thoroughly engaging. Sometimes he would turn towards music director Carlos Kalmar and take a step or two towards the podium. Or he would turn to concertmaster Sarah Kwak or to the orchestra in general. At times, he would lift his chin and his oboe high – well, it didn’t matter what he did because his playing was off the charts. He commanded his instrument with such nuance and artistry that he made the music beguiling with quick passages that never seemed rushed, and dynamics that could instantly change. Playful sections seemed to bounce joyfully all over the hall. Poignantly lyrical lines were absolutely tender.

After being transfixed by Leleux’s performance, listeners rewarded him with demonstrably loud applause that brought him back to the stage several times. He quieted them down by offering a heavenly encore, a solo version of the “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from Gluck’s opera “Orfeo ed Euridice.”

During intermission, crowds flocked to purchase Leleux’s recordings in the lobby, and the line for his autograph was quite long. I’m sure that there was at least one young person who heard him and decided then and there to try to learn how to play the oboe.

Listening to Carpenter’s impressionistic “Sea Drift,” one had the feeling of being adrift in the ocean under a vast sky. A hypnotically changing wash of sound drifted in from various sections of the orchestra. Early on the cellos, violas, and timpani established a rhythm of waves only to be overtaken by large swells emanating from another parts of the orchestra. In calmer passages allowed us to hear some wonder for pairing, such as the celeste and the bassoon or the flute and harp, which dabble like seabirds upon the waves. The brass section evoked a scene of rocky shoals and sea foam, and in the end the musical voyage ended with the vibraphone softly fading into the background.

It’s astonishing to think that Mozart wrote his 28th symphony when he was just 18, but such was his genius. Combing irrepressible flair with sophisticated styles, the piece counts as one of Mozart’s earliest mature symphonies. For that work, the orchestra scaled back to a chamber ensemble and then proceeded to show off its expertise in playing in a refined but not prissy style. Under the baton of Kalmar, the musicians created a taught yet lithe, and dance-like atmosphere. Even the repeats were refreshing to the ears. Joseph Berger, associate principal French horn, elicited a wonderful polished sound that he accented delightfully on the last beat. The second violin section immaculately handled numerous fleet passages and was acknowledged by Kalmar and the audience with a round of applause after the piece concluded.

Liszt’s “Les Préludes" expresses the Romantic ideal of the hero rising from the depths, falling in love with someone out of reach, and conquering adversity. The orchestra painted this image with a slightly lighter touch than I recall from the last time they played in 2008, but the piece still had the same satisfying effect. Impressive was the lovely melody from the cellos, the choir of horns, the stirring trumpets, the contrasting quiet passages in which the harp could be heard, and the majestic, triumphant windup with the entire orchestra sawing away.

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