Zeitouni, Koh and Festival Orchestra dazzle in CMF opener

Dramatic performances highlight a memorable concert

By Peter Alexander

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Jean-Marie Zeitouni

Jean-Marie Zeitouni and the Festival Orchestra opened the 2016 Colorado Music Festival (CMF) in dramatic fashion last night (June 30).

The first piece on the program was Beethoven’s Overture to Egmont—literally dramatic music in that it was written to open performances of Goethe’s play of that title. Springing from the same well of passionate idealism as Goethe’s drama of political oppression and martyrdom, Beethoven’s overture adumbrates many of the themes of the play. And from the bold opening unison to the final celebratory coda, Zeitouni squeezed every bit of drama out of the score.

Most impressive were the control of dynamics and phrasing, with carefully placed phrase climaxes and well controlled crescendos throughout. This overture is a bit of a chestnut, but when played as well as it was by the Festival Orchestra, it is a pleasure to hear.

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Jennifer Koh

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Violin Concerto is a work of many extremes, from the most delicate softs of violin harmonics to violent percussion explosions. There were two heroes of last night’s performance: violinist Jennifer Koh, who gave a brilliant, committed performance; and the acoustics in the Chautauqua Auditorium, which accommodated every nuance of the performance and every degree on the dynamic spectrum.

In the most delicate moments—the virtuoso filigree of the opening passages, and the softest violin harmonics that shaded into silence—the hall allowed every note to be heard. And in the moments of manic energy, when the full percussion section opened up at full volume, the wooden walls and roof turned the hall into a vibrating, resonant instrument in its own right. The visceral impact was something that no recording, however powerful, could match.

Of course, even the greatest halls needs great performers, and I don’t want to shortchange Koh’s mastery of this difficult score, or the quality of the Festival Orchestra. The performance was impressive by any standard, and it was one to be remembered.

After intermission, Zeitouni returned to conduct a work from the heart of the French repertoire that is especially close to his heart, the Symphonie Fantastique of Hector Berlioz. Before the concert, Zeitouni had said that the symphony is a kind of a test case for “where an orchestra is as far as its virtuosity and its capacity to express emotional content and color content.”

By those standards, I can only imagine that he was pleased. He was certainly smiling throughout the performance. The Festival Orchestra performed wonderfully, with wide dynamic levels, brilliant orchestra colors, and full-throated fortissimos that filled the hall without distortion.

If a music critic is expected to criticize, I can note that the balance was occasionally less than perfect, as when some lovely horn playing in the introduction covered the first violins. Elsewhere, there was a brief moment of questionable woodwind intonation in the slow movement.

The duo between English horn and oboe at the beginning of the slow movement was magical, with the oboe answers, representing a more distant shepherd, coming from outside the hall. The oboe was not clearly audible at the front of the hall, but there is little else to criticize.

The beautiful playing of the English horn throughout the slow movement was one of the joys of the performance. The unanimity of pitch and articulation within the winds shows what can be accomplished by the best orchestral players. Such purity of intonation led in turn to crystal clear orchestra textures, which reaps benefits for every section.

The multiple timpani of the slow movement evoked distant thunder, and then thundered powerfully for the “March to the Scaffold.” The orchestral outbursts throughout the march were almost shocking in their forcefulness.

Zeitouni’s control of dynamics and tempo led to a nearly crazed “Witches’ Sabbath” movement that Berlioz surely would have loved. The brass, overpowering through sheer volume, earned great applause, but the woodwind parts are just as difficult, and were played equally well. I have never heard a more powerful and convincing close to this symphony, one of the great and original works of the 19th century.

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