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OBF kicks off season with all-Mendelssohn evening

  • Jul 5, 2012
By Holly Johnson From Oregon Music News July 5, 2012 An all-Mendelssohn program Saturday night June 30th at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall served as the 2012 Oregon Bach Festival opener in Portland, and an impressive launching concert it proved to be. The main attraction was uber-dramatic violinist superstar Joshua Bell performing the Concerto for Violin in E Minor, Op. 64 (including his own original cadenzas in the first movement). But there were plenty of other goodies to enjoy. A highlight as impressive as Bell was Die erste Walpurgisnacht, Op. 60, set to Goethe’s poem of the same title and composed by Mendelssohn in 1831. And the Oregon Bach Festival Orchestra, featured throughout the evening, gave a resplendent performance of the composer’s popular Italian symphony (No. 4 in A Minor) to opening the evening under conductor Helmuth Rilling‘s able baton. The opening piece with its four movements showed off the orchestra nicely. The first movement, allegro vivace, was all sweetness and light, with well-articulated winds, lush sounds from the entire string section and some crisp spiccatto  from the fiddles. Everything moved together with all the right dynamics under Rilling’s non-flashy, focused conducting. Mendelssohn was inspired by the sunshine and color of Italy, and in the final movement, the salterello presto, he applied musical ideas from a popular dance performed by the upper classes of Medieval Europe. Bell, the newly appointed music director of St. Martin in the Fields, brought the audience to its feet after a splashy performance of the violin concerto. One might tire of the splash if Bell’s sound was less than stellar, but along with all the physical pyrotechnics, he produces an amazing lush, unforgettable sound, heartfelt and sweet one moment, searing and vigorous the next.  In the first movement, the cadenza Bell composed for the piece fit Mendelssohn’s sensibilities, yet it adds a bit of excitement from the 21st century. Bell’s attack is marvelous and seemingly effortless. Much of his playing is done with eyes closed, his body hunched into his instrument. He played to the orchestra, Rilling and the audience. Die erste Walpurgisnacht featured some marvelous solo vocalists. Guest artists for the final selection were the exciting alto Sophie Harmesen, who was given far too little to do, tenor Nicholas Phan and bass Markus Eiche. The three, along with the chorus and orchestra, told Goethe’s story, taken from German legends, about the pagans maintaining their old religion in the face of the Christians. The poem was penned in the spirit of the Enlightenment, according to program notes, showing the contrast “of the pure, natural monotheism of the pagans with the superstition of the early European church.” (Harmesen’s brief role of an old woman who warns of the dangers the conquering Christians might inflict was great fun). the music, some of Mendelssohn’s wildest, echoes scenes of the pagans, armed with pitchforks, torches, prongs and rattles, sneaking up on their conquerors to scare them away. The orchestra and chorus pulled out all the stops.