Music review: Oregon Symphony seasons ends with a mesmerizing violin performance

Jennifer Koh
The Oregonian

By James McQuillen

After the Oregon Symphony's fascinating concerts two weeks ago featuring a program originally intended for Carnegie Hall, the season closer in standard overture-concerto-symphony format threatened to seem like an anticlimax. It was instead an appropriately exciting farewell, a pre-summer blockbuster, thanks both to the orchestra in fine form and to an awe-inspiring performance by violinist Jennifer Koh. As in her two previous OSO appearances, she was mesmerizing in Béla Bartók's Violin Concerto No. 2 in every respect--her technical facility, her sound, her musicality and her sheer intensity. The concerto, which is not only one of Bartók's greatest works but also among the most monumental concertos in the violinist's repertoire, calls for an exceptional soloist. The music ranges from earthy Hungarian folk-inspired melodies to atmospheric flirtations with atonality, and features all manner of interactions between the challenging solo part and the widely varying orchestration.

Koh embraced the piece's entire sound world with rapid transitions of tone and mood; her sound was rich and robust in exchanges with the full orchestra, silvery in meditations with harp and celeste, and appealing everywhere in between. In the vast first movement especially, with its mercurial tempos, she was flexible, keenly responsive to the ever-shifting orchestral texture and thoroughly commanding. Though Koh seemed in the driver's seat, Carlos Kalmar led the orchestra in generally fine accompaniment--mostly responsive and balanced, sometimes demure and diffuse, occasionally matching her incisive brilliance.

On its own, the orchestra opened with Franz von Suppé's two-fisted, rambunctious Overture to "The Beautiful Galatea" and closed with Johannes Brahms's First Symphony in a reading that revealed conductor and composer to be well-matched. Powerful but restrained, with meticulous attention to detail and overarching structure, it built steadily into a magnificent and utterly satisfying conclusion. The sound was rich and unified, with especially noteworthy contributions from principal oboe Martin Hebert in the first movement and concertmaster Sarah Kwak and principal horn John Cox in the second.