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Vivaldi, Elgar, Berlioz: Elina Vähälä (violin), Les Sarnoff (narrator), Oregon Symphony, Carlos Kalmar (conductor): Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland 2.12.07 (JB)

Elina Vähälä

Pared down to a lean chamber ensemble of 21, the Oregon Symphony delivered a remarkably expressive and crisp rendition of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” with the beautiful, Finnish violinist Elina Vähälä as the soloist. Vähälä performed with impeccable, breath-taking control and dynamics that made this piece come alive as if it had never been played before.  Accompanying her with the utmost attention to subtle nuances, the orchestra blended perfectly in support of Vähälä's artistry, and together they created convincing tableaux of bucolic landscapes in their seasonal guises.

Artistic director Carlos Kalmar led with his hand rather than with a baton, which worked to keep the music soft, such as when the shepherd slept and a dog barked in the background. The slashing rainfall during the summer thunderstorm and the icy winter storm was thrilling as the sound raked the stage. Vähälä and the ensemble evoked the peasant’s dance, hunting scene, and other summer pleasures wonderfully before slipping away into the bitter chill of winter. Harpsichordist Sue Jensen and principal cellist Nancy Ives played superbly throughout. Vähälä made a terrific case for herself as a violinist to be reckoned with. I hope that she will return to inspire us again. I didn’t care much for Les Sarnoff’s style of narration in  the  sonnets accompanying the Vivaldi however: his voice was pleasant but too avuncular, so the words seemed coated with sugar.

The second half of the program began with the brilliant sweep of sound that introduces Elgar’s “In the South.” Sometimes this part of the tone poem makes me think that it had been written by Richard Strauss, but Elgar takes us down a path that is entirely his own. The orchestra wielded a generous palate of colors and painted a rich and varied soundscape.

At one point, melancholic and lyrical passages faded away before the orchestra threw itself into big blocks of sound. I thought of a giant walking across a valley floor, but apparently Elgar meant this passage to convey ancient, warlike, Roman troops as described in a poem by Tennyson. In any case, the masculine theme rumbled off into the distance, and we were left to wander in a daze until the strings picked us up and escorted us onward.

Principal violist Joël Belgique’s solo in the third section was exquisite, and the violins added a nice layer of sweetness. Overall, this piece showed a lot of exciting energy and drive. The woodwind and brass, especially principal French horn John Cox and principal clarinetist Yoshinori Nakao, played outstandingly from beginning to end.

I would normally think of a concert opening with the Berlioz  “Roman Carnival Overture”, but by concluding the program with this piece, Kalmar and company convincingly capped off the evening with a shower of sonic fireworks. Harris Orem played the English horn solo with pure, plaintive beauty and  I also enjoyed how principal flutist David Buck and principal oboist Martin Hebert finished each other’s conversations seamlessly. The contrasts between the quiet, thoughtful passages and the festive eruptions were marvelous. The audience in the Schnitz, which seemed to be close to 90 percent full, soaked up the final chords with gusto.

James Bash

James Bash is a freelance music journalist based in Portland, Oregon US. He contributes to a variety of magazines in the USA and to the UK based publication, 'Opera.'

Picture of  Eilina Vähälä © Laura Riihelä / Potkastudios

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