Rogue Valley Symphony Masterworks Concert 3: A Celebration of Unsurpassed Beauty
– by Lee Greene
As my readership audience is well aware, I attend LOTS of concerts and performing arts events. I have a long history of doing so, and ever more so recently, while I’ve been writing reviews. Very rarely among that large number of events do I have the sense, while sitting there taking it all in, that I am witnessing something truly extraordinary, something so uncommonly good that it is worthy of being celebrated for all time. It’s an uncanny sense, a profound feeling, that almost never happens. And it’s almost always unexpected, when it does strike – not something one really comes prepared for. But I WAS struck with that sense of the “extraordinary for the ages” while attending the Rogue Valley Symphony’s Masterworks Concert 3 on Friday evening, January 15, 2016 at S. O. U. Music Recital Hall in Ashland.
Now, I did come expecting something special, for the program included the Oregon premiere of an original contemporary work that Rogue Valley Symphony (RVS) co-commissioned, Christopher Theofanidis’s three movement tone poem, Dreamtime Ancestors. That piece, which opened the program, had been well touted and advertised in advance of the concert. And it WAS special – living up to the advance marketing, and then some. It was a beautiful piece of music – not ALL contemporary works are, but this was. And I shall say more about it a little later. But normally, a premiere like that would be the highlight of the evening. So, for example, it was featured on the cover of the Mail Tribune’s January 15 issue of Tempo, and their article in advance of the concert was titled Rogue Valley Symphony showcases Christopher Theofanidis.[http://bit.ly/1ODddI7] But honestly, for me the premiered work proved to be just an appetizer, for the real treat to follow. Please understand, I am not diminishing or criticizing the premiered work, Dreamtime Ancestors, in any way. If that had been the ONLY thing on the program, it would have been well worth the price of admission.
But I was NOT expecting what followed. The next piece on the program was a performance for the ages of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto featuring the most astounding young violinist I have ever experienced in my long life of listening to classical music and attending live performances, Ms. Elena Urioste. You might think I’m engaging in hyperbole, but I really mean it. And I’m not just some rural rube from backwater Oregon, who has no idea what constitutes a great violin performance. I have been fortunate to have heard some of the greatest living violinists, like Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zuckerman, Gil Shaham and Gidon Kremer. I have heard live broadcasts, as well as recordings, featuring virtuosos like Yascha Heifetz and Stephane Grappelli. I have been privileged to hear many of the contemporary crop of violinists in concert, including Joshua Bell, James Ehnes, Sarah Chang, Chee Yun, Stephanie Chase, Jennifer Koh, Augustin Hadelich, and more. And I have a long history of listening to recorded violin performances by artists such as David Oistrakh, Joseph Szigeti, and Fritz Kreisler. So I have been well exposed to exceptional violin performances and know one when I hear it.
I also have to mention that I have a long history with Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, which occupies a special place in my universe. Going back more than 30 years, when I was a young college student, I had a 33 rpm phonograph recording of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto performed by Fritz Kreisler and the London Philharmonic, which I played incessantly to relax, settle down and get focused to study for exams. That was a great violin performance by one of the greatest violinists of all time. I have heard many other performances of the piece by a wide variety of other violinists over the years, both on recordings, in live broadcasts, and in concert. And so, of course, I’m a little familiar with the piece. For instance, I was aware that Herr Beethoven had incorporated cadenzas in the work. What’s a cadenza, for those who may not know?
“A cadenza is a passage of music typically contained within the last phrase of a classical work (as well as jazz and popular music) that calls for a soloist or, sometimes, a small ensemble to perform an improvisation or a previously composed ornamental line. The cadenza often allows the performer to display their virtuosic skills as they ‘free-style’ melodically and rhythmically.” From Classical Glossary, http://classicalmusic.about.com/od/glossary/g/cadenza.htm
A cadenza is “a virtuoso solo passage occurring near the end of a piece of music, formerly improvised by the soloist but now usually specially composed.” Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged, 12th Edition 2014 © HarperCollins Publishers
Early on, musicians used to improvise the cadenza portions of a piece of music. But as the second definition indicates, eventually the cadenza passages became specially composed ornamental passages written to display the virtuosic skills of the musician performer. For Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, there have been over two dozen cadenzas written by various composers and violinists, perhaps an obscure fact, but one which I was familiar with. Leading me to ask Ms. Urioste during the pre-concert talk, which cadenzas she was going to perform; an unexpected and startling question for most of the onlookers. And the answer: at the end of the first movement, Ms. Urioste would perform the cadenza by (drum roll please) Fritz Kreisler. Kreisler’s cadenzas do happen to be the most commonly played of them all, so that’s not a surprise. That Ms. Urioste performed it better than Kreisler on the London Philharmonic recording was a surprise.
A little bit of background on Ms. Urioste would be in order here. Ms. Urioste is a 29 year old phenom, of Mexican-American heritage, born to an attorney mother and a submarine navigator father and raised in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Ms. Urioste began playing the violin at the age of 5, after three years of pestering her parents for one. Eventually, she participated in the Sphinx Competition, where she was the first place laureate in both the Junior and Senior divisions . The Sphinx Competition is designed “to encourage, develop and recognize classical music talent in the Black and Latino communities.” It provides “Black and Latino classical string players a chance to compete under the guidance of an internationally renowned panel of judges and to perform with established professional musicians in a competition setting.” Ms. Urioste was the best of the best among them. She went on to make her professional debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the age of thirteen. Since then, she has made acclaimed debuts with major orchestras throughout the United States, including the Cleveland Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Boston Pops, Buffalo Philharmonic, and the Chicago, National, Atlanta, Baltimore, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Richmond, and San Antonio Symphony Orchestras. Abroad, Elena has appeared with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, BBC Symphony, BBC Philharmonic, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Würzburg Philharmonic, Hungary’s Orchestra Dohnányi Budafok and MAV Orchestra, and La Orquesta Sinfonica de la Universidad de Guanajuato. She has also collected a trophy case full of awards, including the inaugural Sphinx Medal of Excellence, a London Music Masters Award, a Salon de Virtuosi career grant, and first prize in the Sion International Violin Competition, which also awarded her its audience prize and the prize for best performance of the competition’s newly commissioned work. She is a graduate of Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music where she studied with Joseph Silverstein, Pamela Frank, and Ida Kavafian. She completed graduate studies with Joel Smirnoff at The Juilliard School.
I am not the first music critic to sing Ms. Urioste’s praises. Virtually every time and everywhere she has performed, there has been some music journalist present who has been seriously impressed and written a glowing review of her uncanny skill and unmatched performance. (Note: I discovered this, and these reviews, AFTER Ms. Urioste had knocked my own socks off in her performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, not before; so her performance was a complete surprise to me, and my opinion was not influenced by any of the earlier reviews.) A small sampling of earlier reviews:
“Urioste’s technical prowess was matched by her instinctive sense of expressive phrasing. She made the devilishly difficult passages look simple as she danced at a breakneck pace along the fingerboard, scaling it end to end. Her fingers seemed at times to leap frog one over the other. She was going so fast at times that you didn’t dare blink for fear of missing out on a mystical moment of music-making.” Cathalena E. Burch, Arizona Daily Star; November 14, 2015
“I have not previously listened to a violinist as expressive as Urioste when it came to the use of soft dynamics. This was apparent from her very first measures [of Max Bruch’s first violin concerto], which is one of the trickiest opening gestures in the violin repertoire. She knew exactly where she wanted her stress points to be and how to withdraw from them to a level that was practically a whisper. This is one of those ‘warhorse’ concertos that all violinists must master; but Urioste personalized her approach to deliver an interpretation like no other.” Stephen Smoliar, The San Francisco Examiner; June 20, 2015
“The 1910 Elgar concerto, a romantic and somewhat sprawling 50-minute work, is rarely heard in the concert hall but Urioste, 28, one of the finest violinists of her generation, made a persuasive case for its revival. The mercurial concerto’s musical and technical challenges are formidable. Urioste boasted a beautiful sound and dazzling technique. She eloquently negotiated Elgar’s nostalgic themes and articulated the concerto’s many bravura passages with chiseled clarity.” Paul Hyde, Greenville Online; September 21, 2014
I could provide more of these – there are pages and pages of similar gushing praise. Every time Ms. Urioste raises her Nicolas Kittel bow to her Alessandro Gagliano violin, magic seems to happen, and music critics are smitten. See http://elenaurioste.com/category/press/
Now for some notes about that performance with the RVS on January 15. Ms. Urioste entered the stage in a gorgeous tight-fitting grape-colored sleeveless gown, which one of the audience members described as “looking like she was poured into it” and another commented that “she should continue wearing that gown for performances for absolutely as long as she is able.” Her beautiful long hair was pulled back into a tight bun. Her arms are strikingly muscular, but sculpted – her entire body seems sculpted. And it IS – Ms. Urioste has explained on numerous occasions that she regularly follows a discipline of Bikram yoga – 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises in a 105 degree F room for 90 minutes. It has changed her “outward appearance”, built “mental determination” and given her “the ability to overcome most any seemingly impossible situation”, producing “the sense of calm” she exhibits during performances. Which goes a long ways to explaining some of the notes I took during her performance. As she performed the first movement (Allegro ma non Troppo), I wrote:
“Ms. Urioste is playing the Allegro passages quite muscularly and strong, but controlled and quite beautifully – both to hear and to see. Her performance is quite extraordinary to watch – just exhilarating. Her body seems to be sculptured, but she is sculpting the music too, like no other performer before her. The performance is visually just stunning.
Expounding further on the performance of the first movement, I added:
“She plays with a passion and an intensity that is striking and singular. Most of the time, she has her eyes closed and seems to be so completely focused in on the music that she is “at one with the music” like no other performer I’ve ever seen.”
As I mentioned earlier, hearing and seeing her perform the first movement cadenza by Fritz Kreisler, it was impossibly good – what I was hearing was more nuanced, more alive, more skilled than Kreisler himself.
My notes on the performance during the second and third movements continue:
“The second movement (Larghetto) is equally as stunning both to hear and to see. Again she is playing with a passion that is palpable. Again, it is beautiful to hear. Occasionally a look of command flashes across her face, as if to register “I’ve GOT this!” and boy does she ever! She has mastered the full gamut of techniques applicable to the piece – impressive muscular flourishes on the strong passages and such delicate, perfect playing on the soft passages. While waiting between her passages, as the orchestra plays, a soft roll of the shoulders- a gesture of contentment and confidence.
Then the third movement (Rondo, Allegro). Again played with unmatched intensity and passion. Such a gift. Such skill. Just an entrancing performance. As the piece approaches its conclusion, and she again waits while the orchestra plays – a smile creases her face. She appears to know it has been a successful performance. With a final flourish, the piece is finished. And the audience jumps to their feet and erupts in applause.”
I would be remiss if I didn’t comment here that the Rogue Valley Symphony held its own during the performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. If Ms. Urioste was casting smiles during the orchestral passages of the performance, it wasn’t merely a reflection of self-satisfaction, but an acknowledgment that the orchestra was ably carrying its burden too, and the entirety of the performance, soloist AND orchestra was a satisfying success. As ever, Maestro Martin Majkut was on top of things, and had the orchestra totally in sync with Ms. Urioste, in tune, in tempo and tightly together.
I cannot tell you how sad it makes me that I cannot provide you with a recording snippet of that performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto by Ms. Urioste and the Rogue Valley Symphony. For me, it was a high point in a lifetime of classical music. I can, however, offer you a recorded sample (the 2nd movement – Larghetto) from one of Ms. Urioste’s earlier performances of the work, with the New York Youth Symphony:
After multiple trips from offstage back to the stage for bows, amid never ceasing applause at the January 15 performance, Ms. Urioste accommodated the audience with an encore – J. S. Bach’s Sarabande in D minor from the 2nd Partita. (Note well: “[T]he . . . partitas for solo violin are considered the pinnacle of what has been written for this instrument, only within reach of accomplished players: the music fits the instrument, pushing it to the full scale of its possibilities, requiring virtuosity of the player, but without bravura.” Wikipedia, Johann Sebastian Bach, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johann_Sebastian_Bach) Playing this challenging encore piece, Ms. Urioste did not disappoint, but performed with the same passion, intensity, finesse and skill that produced the unforgettable Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. My notes at that point say “Elena Urioste has totally won me over. I am convinced, I am certain, that she is one of the most extraordinary and exemplary violin virtuosos to come along in several generations.” Which explains why the absolutely wonderful premiere performance of the RVS commissioned Christopher Theofanidis tone poem, Dreamtime Ancestors, was not the highlight of the program, for me.
Having said that, let me now return to the premiere performance of Dreamtime Ancestors and give it its rightful due. First, the background. As has been much written about by everyone else, Dreamtime Ancestors is a 3-movement, 17 minute tone poem for orchestra based on Australian aboriginal creation myths.
Mr. Theofanidis has been quoted as saying: “The idea is that we’re constantly in direct connection with our past and future ancestors. That state of dreamtime is usually connected to the land in some way. Our ancestors made the land, left remnants of their existence. That’s why we feel particularly connected to a place.” Mr. Theofanidis, who spent some time in Western Australia and found the aborigines’ creation stories appealing, used them as “a springboard for a tone poem” which calls the dream state an “all at once time,” where there’s no past, present or future. He read the tone poem, by way of introduction, before the performance of his musical composition.
The first of the three movements in Dreamtime Ancestors is called Songlines. These are the things our ancestors have left on Earth, such as rivers and mountain ranges. The second movement is called Rainbow Serpent. The rainbow serpent is a mythical character common to all aboriginal tribes in Australia. As the serpent slithered around the Earth, it left a rainbow in its wake. According to Theofanidis , its light represents the source of the sun. “In that movement, the orchestra’s strings leave that rainbow in their wake, leave a halo in a way. After the melody is presented, audiences will hear a lingering sound in the air.” The last movement is called Each Stone Speaks a Poem. “It’s a bit more earthy sounding, and a strong contrast to the first two pieces, which are more romantic and lyrical. The third movement concludes Dreamtime Ancestors with fast and exciting music.”
Now for my notes on the piece: The first movement, Songlines begins with a horn fanfare, soon joined by strong cello and string bass contributions, followed by more strings and then percussion, especially lots of crashing cymbals. The initial theme keeps echoing throughout the movement. Eventually the rest of the brass are added. Happily, the music is very melodic and beautiful to the ear, in contrast to much other contemporary musical compositions which are often atonal, arrhythmic or cacophonous. This is none of that, but beautiful to hear and interesting melodic music. The movement ends with a drum roll, crescendo, cymbal crash and fading strings.
The second movement, Rainbow Serpent, starts with a swell of strong strings and percussion: xylophone/glockenspiel/chimes. The swelling of strings produces an air of eeriness – like a musical representation of infinite space stretching through time. Again, though it’s a bit out of the ordinary, it’s very musically pleasant, not at all discordant. The second movement comes to a sudden loud stop, with no fade out, in contrast to the conclusion of the first movement.
The third movement, Each Stone Speaks a Poem, begins with the sounds of a clapboard, and lots of cymbal. This is followed by a passage of insistent strings, repeating a theme as though they’re trying to make a point, or leave a lasting impression (which it DOES and a pleasant one at that!). Winds and horns join in. Then a strong piccolo passage (well played by RVS flutist Ms. Debra Harris), a prominent chimes contribution, and the movement comes to an end with a loud clash.
Dreamtime Ancestors was a beautiful, pleasing piece of music – a very successful premiere, and extraordinarily well played by the Rogue Valley Symphony under the careful, precise, and ambitious direction of Maestro Martin Majkut. It was a very notable premiere of a wonderful new contemporary piece that on any other night would have been the highlight of the program, and the main focus of a report on the concert. But that extraordinary performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto by Elena Urioste was so brilliant that it cast a long shadow pushing even this remarkable premiere of a commissioned new work into the background.
And BOTH of those pieces were performed in the first half of the concert, before Intermission. After Intermission, there was more, namely a bravura performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 38, known as “Prague”, because it was first performed in Prague, in 1786. Symphony No. 38 is a curious creation by Mozart, and one in which he diverged from the standard practices of symphonic composers of the early 18th century and from his own usual practice as well. Like many symphonies of the era which have their origins in the format of Italian opera overtures, Symphony No. 38 is a three movement piece. But unlike the vast majority of symphonies created around that time, which adhere to a fast-slow-fast format of the three movements, Mozart begins the first movement of Symphony No. 38 with a slow introduction, something he only did in two others of his many symphonies (Nos. 36 and 39). So the three movements are: 1) Adagio—Allegro, 2) Andante in G Major, and 3) Finale (Presto). Even more heretical for a symphony composed in Vienna in the late 1780’s, Mozart omitted the Minuet which is normally a standard part of the third movement.
I’m NOT going to draw out this article any longer than it already is, by including extensive notes about the Rogue Valley Symphony’s performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 38. Instead I’m going to allow you to hear two excerpt recordings for yourself: one from the second movement, Andante in G Major and another from the conclusion of the third movement Finale (Presto). As I’ve already said, it was a bravura performance – Maestro Majkut had the entire orchestra playing in top form, tightly, and beautifully. I do want to mention, however, that the third movement’s lively Presto includes a very prominent flute role, which counterpoints the melody in places, that was absolutely magnificently and memorably played by RVS flutist, Katheryn McElrath.
Mozart Symphony No. 38, 2nd Mvmt (excerpt):
Mozart Symphony No. 38, 3rd Mvmt (ending):
In reviewing a previous Rogue Valley Symphony concert (the 2015-2016 Masterworks 2 Concert), I wrote: “I dare say, unbelievable as it may sound, Dr. Majkut had this modest regional symphony outperforming some of the major symphonies of this country’s metropolitan areas.” Rogue Valley Symphony’s Masterworks 2 Concert: Now Even Outperforming Major Metropolitan Orchestras The 2015-2016 Masterworks 3 Concert goes a substantial step further. You simply cannot hear a concert like THAT, with a beautiful performance of a commissioned premiere piece, an exquisite concerto performance for the ages, AND a bravura performance of a Mozart symphony on a typical program of any major metropolitan area symphony – you’re lucky to experience ONE of those program elements on a special program offering by a major symphony, but never all three. This was, and I say it in all seriousness, and not by way of hyperbole, one of the most extraordinary and memorable concerts of a lifetime: THREE exceptionally beautiful performances, of beautiful pieces, presented with visual beauty (e.g., the unforgettable grace, palpable passion and stunning beauty of Ms. Urioste playing), beautiful imagery (e.g., of Dreamtime Ancestors), and beautiful contributions by individual musicians (e.g., Ms. Harris’s piccolo on Dreamtime Ancestors and Ms. McElrath’s flute on Symphony No. 38). This concert was indeed a celebration of unsurpassed beauty.
And don’t make the mistake I have in the past of thinking the Rogue Valley Symphony has reached its pinnacle and future performances can only go downhill from here. As long as the current leadership team of Dr. Majkut as Music Director and Ms. Jane Kenworthy as Executive Director remain in place, the quality of the concert programs will remain high and there is still room to climb. Ms. Kenworthy, who was responsible for securing Ms. Urioste’s extraordinary appearance with the RVS for this concert, has whispered that she has procured a young pianist for a January 2017 RVS concert who is to that instrument what Ms Urioste is to the violin. I can hardly wait. The next series of Masterworks concerts, the 2015-16 Masterworks 4 Concert, features acclaimed classical guitarist, Ana Vidović, performing Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, plus the orchestra performing Falla’s The Three-Cornered Hat, Suites No. 1 & 2, Márquez’s Danzón No. 3, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol. Performances are scheduled on February 26, 2016 at S.O.U. Music Recital Hall in Ashland, February 27 at the Craterian Theatre in Medford, and February 28 at Grants Pass Performing Arts Center. Tickets can be obtained by calling 541-552-6398 or online at http://bit.ly/1W5AS5g.