It was a whirlwind week of rehearsals, driving, and more rehearsals, and then a couple of fantastic performances at the first week of the Astoria Music Festival, 2014 edition. Verdi made an appearance again this year, this time on Saturday night’s performance in the form of his perennial favorite, La Traviata. Angela Meade was Violetta, and she showed why she is one of the top sopranos in the world today in her virtuoso performance. Richard Zeller, as Germont, nearly stole the show with his powerful singing. It’s easy to overlook his immense talent, as he spends a lot of his time here in his native northwest, but he is a tremendous artist who is always a pleasure to listen to and perform with. There were some standouts in the orchestra as well for this opera. Principal clarinetist Mark Dubac played with remarkable passion and restraint (and just a hint of subtle vibrato) in his big Act II solo. Concertmaster Inés Voglar Belgique’s heartbreaking solo in Act III, as Violetta lay dying, was pitch perfect. The Portland Festival Opera Chorus also sang with power and several of their number played subsidiary characters in this concert version of the opera as well, all under the able direction of Festival Artistic Director and conductor Keith Clark.
On Sunday afternoon, the orchestra focused on the work of Richard Strauss, whose 150th birthday took place just a few days ago on June 11th. His works were paired with those of perhaps his own favorite composer, W.A. Mozart (though some wags might say instead that Strauss’ favorite composer was himself). After the Overture to Don Giovanni, Oregon Symphony concertmaster Sarah Kwak came to the stage to play Mozart’s D major violin concerto. She did so with customary beautiful tone, expansive phrasing, and flawless intonation. We are indeed lucky to have an artist of her caliber leading our string section! The second half of the concert returned to the Don Juan legend, this time in the form of the eponymous work by Strauss. Principal oboist Karen Wagner played the role of the ingenue under the spell of the great lothario with tenderness and endless phrases spun out seemingly effortlessly. Principal horn Joe Berger led the horns with some bravura playing, and Sarah Kwak’s incidental solos were sensitive and seductive. Strauss’ Four Last Songs followed, with soprano Amber Wagner (who you may recall sang them to great acclaim with the Oregon Symphony last season). She was in fine voice, though I wonder if perhaps the orchestra was too loud for the phrases in her lower register. Again, Sarah Kwak played the definitive version of the solo in the third song, Beim Schlafengehen (Falling asleep), with a rich sound and endless phrases. The final cap on the afternoon’s concert, a bit like a huge dollop of Viennese schlag on an already rich dessert, was the final trio from his great opera Der Rosenkavalier. Three wonderful singers took part – Amber Wagner as the Marschallin, Angela Niderloh as Octavian, and Amy Hansen as Sophie. It’s the most excessive of pieces by a composer who specialized in excess, and was received with a prolonged ovation.
Next, rehearsals begin for the second opera in the festival’s run, Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos in a chamber setting, a Festival All-Star chamber music evening, and the concluding concert of Dvorak’s cello concerto with Sergey Antonov, and the rarely performed Symphony No. 1 for Organ and Orchestra by Alexandre Guimant, with organist Hector Olivera. It promises to be a wonderful week of music making!