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Audience spellbound by all-Mendelssohn opener

  • Jul 1, 2012
By Mark Samples From the Register-Guard July 1, 2012 At Friday’s Oregon Bach Festival opener, superstar violinist Joshua Bell thrilled the audience with his interpretation of Mendelssohn’s violin concerto. The all-Mendelssohn concert also featured two historic champions of Bach’s music. The first was Helmuth Rilling, who conducted the entire evening with authority and from memory. The second was Mendelssohn himself, who during his lifetime sparked a resurgence of interest in Bach’s large choral works.
The program sprinted off the block with Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony. From the first fall of the baton, the players captured the piece’s youthful jubilation. The strings played deftly, seamlessly passing melodies from section to section. The audience was so excited by the orchestra’s playing that it spontaneously applauded after the first movement. Far from a faux pas, it showed the audience’s good sense. It was a performance worth cheering. In the second and third movements, Rilling got in close to his players. He drew out a weighty sound in these inner movements, then transformed it into an exuberant Presto. Mendelssohn knew better than most how to write for woodwind and brass choirs. All evening, our OBF players did these sections special justice, led by Allan Vogel on oboe, Todd Kuhns on clarinet and András Adorján on flute. Joshua Bell is a true virtuoso who combines technical brilliance with a keen sense for visual communication. He played from memory and moved freely, first leaning in to Rilling, then turning to the orchestra, then arcing toward the violins, then waltzing, then stomping his foot. His tone was honeyed and rich, but capable of a beautifully piercing edge. Bell was serious in the first movement, passionate in the second, and puckish in the last. He wove a compelling instrumental drama, and when it was over the audience did not want to let him leave the stage. After intermission came “Die erste Walpurgisnacht,” a secular cantata featuring orchestra, chorus and vocal soloists. The cantata’s text, by Goethe, tells of the Druids’ desire to celebrate a pagan ritual for the coming of May (“Walpurgis Night”), and their fear of Christian retribution. It’s Mendelssohn’s version of witches’ sabbath music. For those familiar with the more famous example of witches’ sabbath music — Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique” — Mendelssohn’s version seems far more restrained. Mendelssohn knew Berlioz’s version firsthand. After hearing “Symphonie fantastique,” Mendelssohn wrote to his father of Berlioz’s wild and dirty orchestration. In the final movement, he wrote with distaste, the orchestra “goes to the devil” and the “instruments have a hangover and vomit music.” Mendelssohn’s orchestra, on the other hand, can hold its brew. The result is a piece that should sound more mischievous than terrifying, more dramatic than crazed, and Rilling successfully walked the line. All three vocal soloists were in fine form. As the Druid priests, Nicholas Phan’s soaring tenor and Markus Eiche’s vigorous bass were well-matched, and alto Sophie Harmsen achieved the pleading tone called for in the score. The chorus members shined in their role as the Druid people, showing an impressive understanding of the piece’s dramatic arc. Mark Samples is a musicologist and an adjunct professor at the University of Oregon.