Oundjian returns to CMF for memorable concert

Pieces by Shostakovich and Berlioz are not to be missed

By Peter Alexander July 26 at 12:30 a.m.

CMF - Oundjian - credit Michael Quam

Peter Oundjian with the CMF Orchestra. Photo by Michael Quam.

Music Director Peter Oundjian has been absent from the Colorado Music Festival podium for the past two weeks, but last night (July 25) he returned for a memorable concert with music by Shostakovich (Cello Concerto No. 1 with soloist Kian Soltani) and Berlioz (Symphonie Fantastique).

The concert will be repeated tonight. If you love those composers as I do, you will not want to miss it.

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Vivan Fung

The program began with a little known piece by Vivian Fung, a Canadian composer of mixed heritage who combines western and various Asian and other folk musical idioms. Dust Devils begins with bright, whirling sounds built from fragments and outbursts of sound that do indeed recall a progression of dust devils. A central section of static chords, marked by slowly changing colors and eerie wails rises to a clouded culmination in the brass.

This entertainingly descriptive piece was played with verve and energy by the Colorado Music Festival Orchestra, who were all smiles at the end. So were many in the audience.

Born in Austria to a family of Persian musicians, Soltani has recently risen to prominence as a soloist with Daniel Barenboim’s West Eastern Divan Orchestra. I had not heard him before, but Oundjian has described him as “an extraordinary talent and a very intense player,” which was evident in his performance of the Shostakovich Concerto.

One of the most demanding pieces in the cello repertoire, the concerto is far more powerful when heard live. The spatial element, separating the voices and putting the cellist full view of the audience, makes both the musical textures and the virtuoso demands of the concerto visible.

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Kian Zoltani. Photo by Juventino Mateo.

Soltani attacked the Concerto with confidence and élan from the very first solo introduction. His playing was full of fire when it needed to be, particularly throughout the intense first movement.

For the second movement Soltani, Oundjian and the orchestra slipped into an entirely different world—one of calm and beauty, with meditative moments bordering on melancholy. The warmth of the cello sound and the delicacy of Soltani’s phrasing made this a high point—at least until the written out cadenza of the third movement, where Soltani’s perfect sense of drama kept the audience rapt. Here the most delicate pianissimos drew the audience in, lest they miss a single nuance.

The finale went off in a burst of energy, ending with an almost shocking series of timpani strokes followed by silence. Soltani’s mastery of the Concerto’s demands was unmistakable throughout, and earned a standing ovation that for once seemed more than routine.

Parts of the Concerto, particularly in the first movement, are virtually a double concerto for cello and horn. Special mention should be made of the orchestra’s outstanding principal horn Catherine Turner, whose clarion calls rang out repeatedly. With no place to hide, she was splendid.

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Hector Berlioz

In introducing Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, Oundjian noted that it was written only three years after Beethoven’s death. What orchestra players in 1830 could have made of Berlioz’s psychedelic masterpiece with its revolutionary instrumental colors, its unprecedented demands on the players, its startling syncopations, the sheer buildup of orchestral sound, its fantastic story of love, death and insanity—much less how they could have played it—is hard to imagine.

The list of innovation in the score is long—violins using the wood of the bow, multiple timpani, two harps, enlarged wind sections, use of the piercing E-flat clarinet—and a testament to Berlioz’s unconstrained imagination. This is a work of staggering originality when it was premiered.

Whatever the players thought then, the Symphonie Fantastique is well within players’ experience and ability today, and I can only believe that Berlioz would have been thrilled with last night’s performance. To mention only a few high points, the introduction was beautifully dreamy and delicate, with Oundjian finding all the momentary outbursts of intensity that needed emphasis.

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Conductor Peter Oundjian

Once the movement got moving, the rhythmic momentum became irresistible, carrying everyone with it. Oundjian perfectly managed the flow and pauses of the second movement waltz. The solo oboe and English Horn of the third movement (“Scene in the country,” the movement with the most obvious precedents in its time) were played beautifully. Throughout the movement, the quietest and most delicate moments were carefully balanced and nuanced.

From the beginning of the “March to the Scaffold” through the following “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath” the momentum grew inexorably to the final chord. Oundjian carefully controlled both volume and tempo, so that the final, culminating crescendo never became distorted and the final accelerando was achieved without loss of clarity or precision.

The program will be repeated tonight (July 26) at 7:30 p.m. at the Chautauqua Auditorium. Tickets are available though the Chautauqua Box Office.