Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Finnish Goddess of the Violin

It's not everyday that I load up my Eurovan and head off to Portland, Oregon to hear a concert. But when I learned that the remarkable Finnish violinist, Elina Vähälä was to perform Benjamin Britten's Violin Concerto with Oregon Symphony, I knew to expect an unforgettable musical experience. I haven't been down to Portland for an Oregon Symphony concert since the era of conductor James DePreist, who left an indelible imprint on the orchestra and community.

With two of Ilkka's accomplished students, Rose McIntosh and Alyssa Fridenmaker, I had wonderful company for the three hour trek. We had an appointment for Rose to meet and play for Elina in the afternoon, to discuss a possible enrollment for the Hochschule fur Musik in Detmold, Germany, where she is currently professor of violin. The meeting turned out to be an invaluable lesson spent with Elina, as she shared insight into the concepts of synchronization between the left and right hands of a violinist, and the importance of clarity, articulation, and understanding of each note, particularly in its role and relation within the context of a phrase. As I sat and listened to the exchange between Elina Vähälä and Rose McIntosh, I couldn't help but wish for the Oregon Symphony to present her in a masterclass for young professionals in the near future. This was traditional, old-school teaching and playing at its best, but with a fresh twist, as described by Alyssa Fridenmaker. We left the conference room eager to hear Elina's performance of Benjamin Britten's Violin Concerto—a first time hearing for all of us.

After browsing at Powell's Book Store (of course!) and dinner at a Thai Restaurant, we returned to the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. I had almost forgotten how much charm this original movie palace has with its ornate Italian Rococo design. The "Schnitz" was packed with an appreciative and enthusiastic audience.

A heart-warming welcome by Oregon Symphony's executive director Elaine Calder, with news of successful fund-raising for the orchestra to make its way to Carnegie Hall in 2011, was followed by an informative and engaging introduction to the rarely performed Britten Violin Concerto by Maestro Carlos Kalmar. The program began with a short work, Magnus Lindberg's "Purcell Variation". This piece felt like a mere curtain raiser, or teaser, to usher in the evening's soloist, Elina Vähälä.

Benjamin Britten, whose political views were very much of the socialist, pacifist, Left of the 1930's, wrote his concerto during 1938/39 as a requiem for the fallen soldiers of the Spanish Civil War, as well as a foreshadowing of World War II. It offers the violinist a sustained, dream-like main theme followed by a starkly contrasting, military quasi-cadenza. The tympani echoes the artillery of the military section. In a gypsy trio section, the intensive solo part is laden with furious, demanding passage work. The concerto concludes with a haunting and deeply spiritual lament. Britten invites the listener to hear and question the suffering of mankind by conveying an almost unspeakable sense of loss with his music. Elina Vähälä, with her incomparable command of the instrument, held the audience spellbound from the first note to the last. Her sound is expansive, varied and rich; she is a fearless violinist. The Oregon Symphony, under Kalmar's direction, accompanied the concerto with sensitivity and emotionalism.

Over the years, I've heard Elina Vähälä perform an assortment of solo repertoire, from Vivaldi to Shnittke, Mozart to Curtis-Curtis Smith, and frequently with her pianist/conductor husband, Ralf Gothóni. Every time I leave the concert hall with a similar impression, that being as if each composer wrote with her in mind.

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