Oberlin Orchestra with Jennifer Koh (September 29) &
Oberlin Sinfonietta with Haewon Song (October 4)
It’s no secret that greater Cleveland is home to a number of impressive music schools. The talented students who attend these institutions contribute greatly to the area’s vibrant musical life. During the past ten days two of the Oberlin Conservatory's premier ensembles made their season debuts, and although still early in the semester, the young musicians in Oberlin’s Orchestra and Sinfonietta proved to be more then ready to tackle even the most difficult scores placed in front of them.
For the Oberlin Orchestra concert on Saturday, September 29 in Finney Chapel, conductor Rafael Jiménez chose a program that featured both well-known and lesser-known repertoire. Beginning with three silent beats followed by the striking of a chime, Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten (1980) — scored for strings and bell — is an example of the composer's “tintinnabuli style”, meditative but with a clear harmonic structure. As the work’s dynamics gradually grow from a whisper to full volume, Jiménez shaped a well-paced performance, drawing a rich sound from his players. Cantus also served as the perfect prelude to the evening’s second work.
Since winning the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1994, violinist and Oberlin alum Jennifer Koh has firmly established herself as an artist who is stylistically versatile, possesses a rock solid technique, impeccable intonation, keen musical sensibilities and a focused tone that easily carries above even the thickest orchestrations. All of these qualities served her well during her mesmerizing performance of Lutoslawski’s Chain II: Dialogue for violin and Orchestra (1985). Like several of the composer’s works, the four movements of Chain II alternate between “Ad Libitum” or free, without rhythmic coordination, and “A battuta” or with beat. Throughout the work it was clear that Koh understands that “Ad Libitum” is not a synonym for “free-for-all” as she paid close attention to the work's harmonic and rhythmic structure, easily handling the many difficult technical demands the piece threw at her. During the second movement “A battuta”, Koh seized the moment, playing with reckless but controlled abandon, and she did that with aplomb. Jimenéz kept a watchful eye on the proceedings, allowing for a true dialogue between soloist and orchestra to unfold.
Stravinsky’s Suite from The Firebird (1919), by far the best-known of all of the suites the composer extracted from full ballet scores, is a musically colorful account of the journey of Prince Ivan. While it is a challenging work, the Oberlin orchestra was superbly prepared for its task. Although at times Rafael Jiménez seemed to be holding back the tempos, especially in the Dance infernale du roi Kastchel, overall he lead a well balanced performance, allowing room for the work's numerous solo passages to shine. The winds tossed musical lines back and forth with ease during the Variation de l’oiseau de feu and Ronde des princesses was magical. Bassoonist Briana Leham was outstanding in the Bercuse and Matt McLaughlin’s majestic horn solo introduced the Finale with panache.
The concert concluded with a lively performance of Oberlin graduate Christopher Rouse’s whimsical The Nevill Feast.
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Throughout his life Olivier Messiaen was fascinated with birdsong and began to notate their sounds by the time he was 14. Although he did include birdsong in a few of his early works, in his 1956 composition Oiseaux exotiques, he found a way to incorporate 48 of their “songs” with another of his musical influences, the rhythmic systems of ancient India and Greece. On Thursday, October 4 in Warner Hall, conductor Timothy Weiss chose Messiaen’s monumental work as the centerpiece of the Oberlin Sinfonietta’s opening concert.
Scored for eleven winds, six percussion and solo piano, Oiseaux takes the listener on a mystical journey full of various tonal colors that highlight the unique sounds of each bird. Using his ability to translate color to sound, Messiaen meticulously assigns each sound to various groups of wind and percussion instruments. Pianist Haewon Song gave a brilliant performance, playing with expressive line throughout the work, even during the most technically difficult passages. Her five cadenzas were full of mood and color changes. Timothy Weiss chose to take a less-is-more approach from the podium, conducting with clear and decisive beats. The winds were spectacular and the percussion, notably Sean Dowgray, xylophone, and Chris Cabrera, glockenspiel, were stellar.
The three works that filled out the program were an eclectic mix. George Perle’s Critical Moments 2 (2001) scored for Pierrot ensemble (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion) and lasting only eleven minutes is quintessential Perle: a set of nine miniatures, each with a distinct musical personality, full of dovetailing phrases and lines that come to sudden halts that are typical of the composer. Weiss kept everything under control, and the ensemble played incisively with impeccable intonation and rhythm.
The surprising little gem of the evening was George Enescu’s rarely heard Chamber Symphony in E Major (1954). Often thought of as a composer of folk inspired music (e.g. his two Romanian Rhapsodies), in this work the influences of his teacher Fauré and his classmate Ravel are evident. During the work's four connected movements, Enescu constructs colorful melodic lines that weave through an ensemble of flute, oboe, English horn, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, piano, violin, viola, cello and bass. Wiess led an expansive yet delicate performance of the work, paying close attention to thematic transitions.
In Septet (1953) Igor Stravinsky made one of his first attempts at writing serial music. An odd three-movement work for clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello and piano, Septet’s opening movement is reminiscent of the Dumbarton Oaks concerto, with its baroque-like dance rhythms. The 2nd and 3rd movements, Passacaglia and Gigue are also reminiscent of the baroque style. Student conductor Matthew Chamberlain did an efficient job of following Stravinsky’s score and the ensemble responded in kind.
In addition to some wonderful playing, it was interesting to hear, when played end to end, how stylistically different three works written in the mid-1950’s could be.
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Published on ClevelandClassical.com October 13, 2012
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