Saturday, April 16, 2016

Oregon Symphony concert a study of contrasts

Augustin Hadelich
The Violin Concerto of Thomas Ades scratched the surface of many earlobes at the Oregon Symphony concert on Saturday evening (April 9th), leaving most of us in the audience at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall feeling puzzled even though we were sure that the featured soloist, Augustin Hadelich, had done everything in his command to convey something of the piece’s subtitle, “Concentric Paths.” The concerto, conducted by Carlos Kalmar, began in the ultra-high range of the violin with some near nail-on-the-chalkboard notes. The stratospheric quality at one point was accompanied by two piccolos and later the Hadelich and the orchestra created a weird whistling effect – or perhaps my synapses were temporarily overloaded. In any case, when Hadelich finally descended to a slightly lower range, I felt a sense of relief, but that was cut off with a bang of the bass drum to conclude the first movement.

The second movement featured a herky jerky – stop/start sequence that paired Hadelich’s violin with two trumpets and a trombone. Several big whams from the percussion gradually tapered off into the distance so that Hadelich could float a wandering line that turned into a lament. Hadelich also executed a series of ascending lines stuffed with double-stops. A rambling bass trombone and tuba segment formed an odd passageway for Hadelich to show off some lightning-fast technique that later slowed down to a near harmonious center. The tone became darker and the atmosphere slightly ominous as Hadelich probed the lower register of his violin before the movement ended solemnly.

The third movement showed a lot of rhythmic drive by all of the strings and an odd melody followed by passages that were tossed into the woodwinds and other sections of the orchestra. Hadelich carved out a quixotic melody and the entire ensemble negotiated several brief stuttering pauses before the piece ended.

The audience responded warmly to Hadelich’s virtuosic performance, and, he followed it with mind-boggling performance of Niccolò Paganini’s “Caprice No. 5. He took it at a devilishly fast pace, playing every note spot on and even varied the volume. It showed that he could play something that everyone could follow – even if it was at Lamborghini-esque speed, and the audience loved it to pieces.

After intermission, the orchestra explored the contrasting elements of Edward Elgar’s First Symphony. I really enjoyed the way that the noble themes would sneak in from nowhere, and the musicians excelled with dynamics – shading phrases by turning down the volume – accelerating energetically – punctuating passages with a lump of sugar as needed. The soft, diffuse sections were sort of like a fog creeping in ever so slowly. Concertmaster Sarah Kwak expressed her solos with exceptional musicality as did guest principal flutist Martha Long. The strings dispatched the some of the speediest lines I’ve ever heard with ease and they also created graceful moments that flowed effortlessly. The piping high flute and piccolo passages, the soaring French horns, and the wonderfully forlorn sounds from principal clarinetist Todd Kuhns were memorable highlights of the evening.

The concert opened with the best piece ever written by a teenager, the Overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by Felix Mendelssohn (composed when he was 17). The fleet fingerwork by the strings, insistent braying of the horns, and the playful exchanges between various sections of the orchestra made this piece a delight.

Despite the exceptional playing, the orchestra looked pretty glum on the whole, and that is not an encouraging sign to those of us who sit in the audience and wonder why. Fortunately, the musicians’ professionalism and sheer talent kicked in, and they responded to Kalmar’s directions.

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