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Hahn creates sublime poetry with Oregon Symphony in Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto

October 3, 2010

by James Bash

If there’s a way to get to a higher level of consciousness, then Hilary Hahn’s playing must be a portal. The virtuoso violinist’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with the Oregon Symphony under the direction of Carlos Kalmar on Saturday (October 2) bordered on perfection with flawless technique, impeccable intonation, and a rich, resonant tone that was mesmerizing. The result was a performance that had a personal touch, because it seemed as if Hahn was communicating to each individual in the hall rather than to a crowd. This was the first of four concerts (three in Portland and one in Salem) that Hahn has with the orchestra. The two-time Grammy Award winner played a version of the concerto that reflected what Tchaikovsky originally wrote rather than what famous violinists added later (to make the piece more appealing). But from the first note, the distinctions between the versions melted away. Hahn’s performance included terrific ritardandos, especially when she decelerated to exquisite pianissimos, and her accellerandos had a thrill factor of a Maserati coming out a hair-pin turn. Among the many highlights were the high notes in the cadenza in the first movement because each one was slightly different and personalized.

When Hahn wasn’t playing, she was listening to the orchestra. At one point, she even turned around and faced the orchestra, and she seemed to be inspired by what she heard. When she played some super pianissimo passages, the orchestra dropped its volume below hers and maintained a drop-dead gorgeous sound. It was astounding.

Kalmar’s conducting was very sensitive to Hahn’s playing and he guided the orchestra in way that matched her intensity. The chemistry between everyone was extremely good, and the performance received a rousing ovation. Hahn responded with an encore, the “Sarabande” from the Bach’s B-minor Partita for solo violin. Again, Hahn’s playing was astonishingly gorgeous.

The concert began with stimulating piece called “Phenomenon” by Narong Prangcharoen, a 37-year-old composer from Thailand. According to the program notes, this piece seeks to evoke a sense of unexplainable and mysterious natural phenomena, such as the Aurora Borealis in the Northern Hemisphere or the Naga Fireballs, which arise from the Mekong River in Thailand. Well, believe it or not, “Phenomenon,” as played by the Oregon Symphony did create an atmosphere of strangeness and wonder. It was an energetic piece that lunged sonically and slapped your ears and then quickly pulled back to expose a series of eerie, high-pitched sounds that dangled and teased. The piece played to the strong points of Kalmar’s energetic style and the orchestra plunged into the music with enthusiasm.

After intermission, Kalmar led the orchestra in an outstanding performance of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony. The musicians reveled in the wide-ranging moods of this piece, whether they created percussive, military-like music or took off sprinting like an athlete in the 100-yard dash. They also marvelously switched from the sound of a colossus striding about to passages that were tender and delicate. I heard snappy endings, phrases that were traded with élan from section to section, and sprightly dance-like numbers, including an exciting trumpet-two-step sequence. The climaxes in the piece were exhilarating and, the orchestra played with a verve that was optimistic and expansive. Overall, the musicians played this piece like they owned it and won over an audience that didn’t know the music and was probably skeptical at the outset. Bravo!