Friday, February 3, 2017

Superb near-all-Russian program played by Oregon Symphony with violinist Jackiw

The Oregon Symphony performed a near-all-Russian program last weekend with works by Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and Tchaikovsky providing the main meal and the young American composer Sean Shepherd adding a Russian-inspired appetizer. I heard the concert on Saturday (January 28) at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall with violinist Stefan Jackiw, making a return appearance as the featured soloist. He and the orchestra, led by music director Carlos Kalmar, sounded as good as ever, and each piece received a radiant interpretation.

Jackiw gave an impeccable performance of Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto. His playing transcended the numerous technical challenges of the piece, especially when he had to transition between lightening quick and slow-moving passages. He impressively elicited a lovely very high melodic line against the tic toc the orchestra in the second movement and followed that with a wonderfully loosey-goosey slightly-off kilter delivery in the third. His short duet with the double basses right before winding up the piece on a high note an extra delight.

I never thought that Stravinsky would write sentimental music, but he did just that with the “Divertimento” that he created from his ballet “Le baiser de la fée” (“The Fairy’s Kiss”). The performance by the orchestra contained an intoxicating intermingling of Stravinsky takes on Tchaikovsky like themes. As soon as a Tchaikovsky-inspired riff appeared, it would take on a Stravinsky-ish quality, such as a quirky rhythmic pulse or an odd flight of fancy.

The orchestra created many finely etched and lushly lyrical moments, and there were many highlights that showed off the principals. Flutist Martha Long and clarinetist James Shields delivered lovely plaintive solos. John Cox whipped through one of the squirreliest passages for French horn that I’ve ever heard. Trombonist Daniel Cloutier’s solos were strong yet never strident. Concertmaster Sarah Kwak and her first desk colleagues Chien Tan, Joël Belgique, and Nancy Ives played a delightfully brief quartet excursion. Ives teamed up with harpist Jennifer Craig to create a tender and affectionate mood, and Ives extended that sentiment later when the orchestra re-entered to stagger off the beat into a punchy finale.

The Stravinsky was followed by Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” Fantasy Overture, which the orchestra played with élan. The opening measures, graced by Craig’s harp, sounded like a flower opening through the mist. Crisp attacks and the slashing sounds from the violins evoked the fight between the Montagues and the Capulets. The hushed melody of the love theme was superbly played. Kudos to bassoonist Carin Miller Packwood and Kyle Mustain on English horn for their keenly expressive contributions.

Shepherd wrote “Magiya” (“Magic”) in 2013 for the National Youth Orchestra of the United States. It’s a one-movement work that lasts around seven minutes, but in those seven minutes a lot happens. The music takes off quickly and the pace never slows down. Brilliant and spikey sounds emerge from all corners of the orchestra. Chattering violins, near-bell-like sounds flashed, creating an auditory illusion and misdirection. Somehow the piece ended in a delightful cacophony, and before I knew it, I wanted to hear it again. Fortunately the orchestra recorded the piece for a future CD.

In his prefatory remarks for the concert, Kalmar included a rare personal note about his parents becoming refugees after fleeing the Nazis and the unifying power of music. His statement was an eloquent rebuttal to the travel ban on Muslims that was issued by the Trump administration, and it received thunderous applause and cheers.

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