This weekend brings yet another stellar violinist to the Oregon Symphony, this time it’s returning soloist Stefan Jackiw (pronounced JACK-eev). He played some superb Mozart on his last visit, and this time he’s playing Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, a work that’s most often heard being butchered by young aspiring contestants at solo and ensemble competitions every spring. So it’s nice to hear it getting the star treatment this week in rehearsals. Jackiw is a very intense, young violinist, but so at ease in his technical facility on the instrument. His production of sound is effortless, and he has a flexible, slender, silvery sound that Isaac Stern could only dream of possessing.
This week’s program is built around the idea of the use of folk songs in classical repertoire, with Britten’s late Suite on English Folk Tunes, Op. 90; Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture (based upon student drinking songs), and the Scottish Fantasy (which derives all of its tunes from the Scottish folk literature). The black sheep of the group is Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, which mainly works by keeping the music in a lighter vein – it’s some of Beethoven’s happiest and light-hearted music, and a blast to play. This is Resident conductor Gregory Vajda’s last classical series concert with us – he’s leaving at the end of the season to develop his post as music director of the Huntsville Symphony in Huntsville, Alabama – and I hope you’ll come to the concerts to bid him a warm farewell.
This past week brought a concert that was one of my favorites of this season. The two major pieces on the program were the Beethoven Violin Concerto with soloist Karen Gomyo, and Carl Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony “The Inextinguishable”. Throw in the delightful, nostalgic little Copland “Letter from Home” and you’ve got quite a nice concert. All pretty normal and mundane by symphony orchestra standards, right? Well, almost. We got word that Carlos was going to be delayed in Vienna due to a family emergency. Our first rehearsal was set for last Tuesday. Carlos would not be flying back into Portland until late Thursday. That meant that Resident conductor Gregory Vajda would be leading four of our five rehearsals before our Sunday morning dress rehearsal.
It’s hard to step in and rehearse an orchestra under any circumstances, but even more so when one is going to rehearse but not actually conduct the performances. I would suppose that the temptation would be to either put your own stamp on the pieces, but then that would mean that there would be more work for the music director to change things to his liking in one short rehearsal. On the other hand, one could rehearse the transitions, give the orchestra time to play through and familiarize themselves with the pieces, and then let the music director step in and guide things in his direction. Wisely, Vajda chose the latter choice, and it made things a lot easier in some respects, even though it did make for some frustratingly vague rehearsals. So, when Carlos showed up for his Sunday morning dress rehearsal with us and the soloist, things went very well. We’ve developed a shorthand for communicating things quickly with Carlos, and he with us, and so things went together quickly and smoothly.
When the matinee concert Sunday afternoon began with those solo timpani notes at the start of the Beethoven concerto, it was clear that there was going to be some serious music-making going on. It was, as Carlos remarked to us Monday morning, pure chamber music between Karen Gomyo, Carlos, and the orchestra. It doesn’t hurt that Karen is a superb musician and that the Beethoven is one of the supreme masterpieces of classical music. Oh, and the orchestra and Carlos aren’t chopped liver, either. It was a joy from beginning to end, and it was particularly inspiring to hear our bassoon section, with its many wonderful melodies and counter-melodies, of Carin Miller and our new second bassoonist Adam Trussell, who played this week with us ahead of his official December 1 start date. And of course, in the Nielsen, the addition of contra-bassoonist Evan Kuhlmann was great, too.
We had a wonderful guest concertmaster, Assia Dulgerska, who was visiting from her current position as Assistant concertmaster of the Houston Symphony. She played her incidental solos in the Nielsen with warmth and passion. Also with us last week (and again this week) was guest principal flutist Jessica Sindell, who has the most magnificent flute sound, and seemed to fit right into the woodwind section as the week went along. She had some beautiful contributions in all of the pieces, especially the Beethoven and Nielsen, both as a soloist and part of the woodwind choir.
The Nielsen, of course, was a knockout. It is one of those pieces that is somewhere between “just ok” and “fun” to play, but is an absolute blast to hear performed live from the audience. There were so many things that went so well – the brass shone from beginning to end (they finally got a piece that they could sink their considerable teeth into), with special kudos to the low end – Charles Reneau on bass trombone and JaT’tik Clark on tuba. All of the woodwinds played with remarkable sensitivity in the third movement. And the violins played the shit out of the furious 32nd note fugue subject at the beginning of the last movement. And, I say with due modesty, the violas made very effective machine guns in the first movement.
So, the orchestra continues on its upward trajectory after our Carnegie Hall debut last May. It’s an exciting place to be!
Speaking of exciting, this coming weekend’s concerts will be incredible. First, the orchestra gets to flex all of its virtuosic musculature in Richard Strauss’ Don Juan – it will knock your socks off! Then there is the remarkable Britten Piano Concerto, which is seldom heard – it was last played by the Oregon Symphony in 1948(!) – with pianist Stephen Osborne, but a wonderful piece. And finally, one of the great symphonies ever composed, Mozart’s final symphony, No. 41 ‘Jupiter’.
Yes, tonight was the last concert of the 2010-2011 season. Coming just over a week after our concert in Carnegie Hall, it was a whirlwind ending to a very eventful season. We had a nice crowd in Salem, who welcomed us warmly as they always do. Resident conductor Gregory Vajda led the concert, and all of our soloists played wonderfully yet again. With such a back-loaded season, it is nice to be at the end looking back. As the weeks go by, it will be nice to start to look forward to the season to come, but for now, school’s out, baby!