so long, farewell – part I

last night, the final ’09/’10 oregon symphony show at the schnitz began with a precocious 8-year-old pearl written by finnish composer magnus lindberg.  only a few minutes in length, the music was a mysterious apparition, there and gone, sounding as though some long-forgotten black & white film score was melting before our ears.  poof – gone.  the stage was set for yet another finn – elina vähälä.  this season’s last guest soloist was charged with presenting britain’s benjamin britten’s 1939 violin concerto… a rare work most classical music fans do not know and a work never before played in the history of the oregon symphony.  like a well-shaken bottle of cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil and aged modena balsamic, ms. vähälä managed to perfectly suspend the extremes of britten’s concerto, balancing harmonic beauty with atonal dissonance, sweetly sung phrases with violent violin jabs, gentle rhythms with stop-go utterances.  as a general quick-and-dirty rule, classical music 101 dictates that a concerto is made up of two quick tempo movements that flank a slower middle section; britten switches things up and places a demonic second movement smack dab in the middle of this work, complete with an extended hell-fire violin solo (during which the unusually silent audience was obviously captivated).  vähälä began the concerto looking almost childlike in a simple purple gown and single blond pigtail (!), was transformed half-way through into a raging athlete with fallen bangs covering her eyes as she sent her strings into the stratosphere, and slyly presented the emotionally unresolved finale with quiet, optimistic dignity.  the intentionally ambiguous ending… the largely unknown composition… the heavy musical statements… these combined forces left the crowd rather stunned, and by the time half the audience realized they should have been on their feet, the lights went up and intermission beckoned.  writing during wartime, the hard core pacifist britten observed: “it’s at times like these that work is so important, that humans can think of other things than blowing each other up.”  ironically, elina and the band teamed up to blow away the listener of this concerto, albeit with the slightly less lethal force of musical genius.

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