Chee-Yun lights up Oregon Symphony with thrilling Dvorak performance

The Oregonian

By James McQuillen

January has turned out to be Substitute Soloist Month at the Oregon Symphony. Pianist Benedetto Lupo replaced the ailing Ingrid Fliter two weeks ago, and this weekend violinist Chee-Yun appeared as a last-minute replacement for Arabella Steinbacher, who also was ill.

One can only imagine the headaches these back-to-back changes have caused in the orchestra's offices, but on stage there's been no cause for complaint. Lupo excelled in the Robert Schumann concerto, and in Saturday night's series opener, Chee-Yun gave a smashing performance of Antonín Dvorák's Violin Concerto.

Why this concerto is so seldom played -- the Oregon Symphony last performed it nearly 20 years ago -- is a mystery; it's laden with lyrical tunes and jaw-dropping violin virtuosity. The solo part is obviously demanding, but in the hands of Chee-Yun, armed with her gorgeous-sounding Stradivarius, it was an edge-of-the-seat thrill. Her tone was rich and nuanced, her technique solid and secure without restraining the passion and power of her performance; that she got through the whole thing without a broken string or handfuls of dangling bow hair was a minor miracle.

The densely orchestrated concerto also presents a major challenge for the rest of the players, and under Carlos Kalmar's direction they shone. Myriad details stood out, such as the interplay of soloist and winds (notably new principal bassoonist Carin Miller) and the tight, focused violins at the opening of the dancing third movement.

The rest of the program also played to the orchestra's growing strengths -- the unity of the string sound, the vivid colors of the winds and the cohesiveness of the whole. The opener was Bohuslav Martinu's homage to the fighter plane that helped drive the Nazis from his native Czechoslovakia, "Thunderbolt P-47," an exercise in relentless, shifting rhythms and unbridled instrumental power (and easily one of the coolest titles in all of classical music).

The closer was Ottorino Respighi's ballet score, "La boutique fantasque," which tells an amusing toy-shop story with tunes from Rossini, richly orchestrated and conducted by Kalmar with obvious glee.