James Ehnes gave a breathtaking performance of William Walton’s Violin Concerto with the Oregon Symphony under guest conductor Eivind Gulberg Jensen on Saturday (December 1) that was about as close to perfection as can be imagined. His playing encompassed a brilliant technical precision yet expressed the varied emotions of the piece with panache. The lyrical passages were warm and sweet but not syrupy. The fast sections were brisk and electrifying with Ehnes in complete command whether tempos sped up or slowed down – sometimes within the same phrase. The playful exchanges with the orchestra in the tricky second movement were marvelously seamless and the lush, rhapsodic at the end of the final movement – with the harp keeping a heartbeat – was moving.
The thunderous applause brought Ehnes back to center stage several times, and the gracious Canadian violinist responded with an encore, offering an exquisite performance of the third movement of Bach’s Sonata No. 3 in C Major. That sonata is considered extremely difficult to place because of all of the exposed areas – any flaw in playing sticks out immediately. In any case, Ehnes gave an immaculate performance, which served to polish his reputation as one of the very best of the best violinists who has ever performed in Portland.
The other big work on the program was Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances,” which received an outstanding performance from the orchestra. The strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion imbued each movement with incisive playing, starting with a triad of charged, driving notes that transitioned into a melancholic mélange that briefly featured the alto saxophone. The second movement was hauntingly beautiful with its the dusky fanfare followed and slow, off-balanced waltz. Highlights of the third included a shuddering trumpet, woody bass clarinet, and surge into an ebb and flow and a final episode that contained melodies from the composer’s “All-Night Vigil.”
The concert began with a sonically mesmerizing work by Swedish composer Anders Hillborg entitled “Exquisite Corpse.” The title refers to a parlor game from the 1920s in which a story was created from sentences or phrases that the first participant wrote on a piece of paper, folded it over, and gave to the next player to continue in the same manner. Apparently, a Surrealist group broke it down to one word at a time and arrived at “The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine.” Was this a product of the unconscious mind? Who knows.
In any case, Hillborg ran with the idea, putting composers who have influenced him into the game plan, so to speak. The program notes mentioned Ligeti, Sibelius, and Stravinsky. I think that I heard something Stravinsky-like and a segment near the end that suggested Sibelius, but the pie seemed to stand very well on its own, regardless of influences. It opened with a sparse set of notes in very close relationship to each other. This set acquired more and more notes until it became a dense cloud, hitting bottom – accented by a basement tone from the piano. The strings created a sonic meltdown then ascended furiously and before suddenly stopping, releasing sharp, slicing sounds. Playful passages featured the percussion and piano accompanied by wiggly tones from the woodwinds and later higher pitched sounds and finally a brass choir (anchored by JáTtik Clark on the cimbasso). Syncopated and rhythmic drumming, three piccolos creating a whistling effect, and a couple of huge sonic build-ups led to the a final, strangely mystical chord that blurred and drifted away.
The concert marked the American debut of Jensen, who was born Norway and is only 46 years old. He has directed the Vienna State Opera, the Berlin Philharmonic, and the Munich Philharmonic, and seems to be on his way to building a major-league career. He was extremely musical in his gestures, including holding the baton incredibly loosely when the music became less tense. He also had used a quavering hand gesture that was intriguingly exact, yet might be hard to follow when you are playing. It would be great to see him on the podium again to find out what else he can do with this orchestra. As most readers know, Carlos Kalmar is stepping down as music director at the end of the 2019-2020 season. Hmm...