Season opener rises to occasion
From the Register-Guard
Monday June 27, 2011
By Mark Samples
Though disparate in style and period, the program of the Oregon Bach Festival’s 2011 season opener cast an inspiring picture of the far-reaching and diverse aims of the festival. It began with two Bach masterworks and concluded with “Azul,” a magnificent 21st century cello concerto featuring Yo-Yo Ma.
Jeffrey Kahane expertly directed all three works, showing the impressive versatility and artistry for which he is so beloved by festivalgoers.
Opening with a piece as frequently played as Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 can be dangerous, but the orchestra was light on its feet, and the four instrumental soloists played with brio. It was a short and satisfying beginning, and the audience eagerly expressed its appreciation.
Bach’s Magnificat, for chorus, vocal soloists and orchestra, followed. A setting of the Marian canticle from the Gospel of Luke, the piece highlighted the title theme of this season’s festival, “In Praise of Women.” The work alternated between intensely dramatic tutti sections — during which the chorus was impressively crisp — and intimate chamber settings, where vocal and instrumental soloists shined. Highlights included Allan Vogel’s enchanting solo for oboe d’amore, and the pathos-filled trio for two sopranos and alto.
“Azul,” written for Yo-Yo Ma in 2006 by acclaimed Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov, was a brilliant programming choice. The piece is proof that contemporary art music can be immediately accessible to any level of listener, but also rich in innovation and expressive depth.
Though a superstar, Yo-Yo Ma betrayed no trace of ego in his performance. He telegraphed sincerity, vigor and graciousness, all of which were confirmed by his magnificent and mesmerizing playing. The orchestra rose to the occasion, providing the nuanced soundscape, dramatic swells and sudden shifts called for in the score.
Though for cello, “Azul” also prominently featured a continuo group of hyper-accordion, played by Michael Ward-Bergeman, and percussion. The percussionists, Cyro Baptista and Keita Ogawa, were as much fun to watch as to hear. Baptista even triggered laughter — a sound far too seldom heard in the concert hall — from the audience when he squawked a duck call at conductor Kahane.
The music of “Azul” features a plurality of influences, from Argentinian tango and Baroque forms to its panoply of South American percussion. Throughout, performers reached moments of rapturous melodiousness, intense cacophony and, in the end, peaceful silence.
The extended cello cadenza, which comprises the entire third movement, “Transit,” was exciting. It emerged delicately but rhythmically out of a preceding moment of orchestral cacophony. The accordion and percussion soon joined in, and the musicians steadily gathered momentum until by the end this small group was grooving hard.
The piece completely won over the audience, whose cheers and applause persisted for several minutes.
Eventually, Yo-Yo Ma was persuaded to play an encore, for which he chose the Sarabande from Bach’s 6th Cello Suite. His intensely personal interpretation was a fitting complement to the cosmic expansiveness of “Azul,” and even the on-stage performers leaned in.
Mark Samples is a musicologist and adjunct instructor at the University of Oregon.