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Jennifer Koh thrills with Oregon Symphony

11.23.08
Jennifer Koh
Oregon Symphony

In his tenure as music director of the Oregon Symphony, Carlos Kalmar has introduced Portland audiences to a wealth of talent they'd likely know nothing of otherwise -- soloists and conductors who fly under the mainstream radar -- even as orchestras everywhere face increasing pressure to fill seats by featuring marquee names. Saturday night's concert at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall was an example of how gratifying that strategy can be, and what a shame it would be to have the appeal of stardom win out over the thrill of discovery.

The night's big piece was the violin concerto of Johannes Brahms, with soloist Jennifer Koh, who last appeared at the Schnitzer for the Oregon Symphony's belated premiere of Karol Szymanowski's violin concerto two years ago. Koh's hardly an unknown, and if there's any justice she'll be a star soon enough, but her name lacks the ticket-selling power of, say, Nadja Solerno-Sonnenberg, who played the same concerto with the Oregon Symphony Orchestra seven years ago.

No matter, her performance was a thrill: rhapsodic, technically dazzling, and full of soul but free of sentiment. Soaring through the often turbulent solo line, she was both intense and subtle; her power threatened to crush her glorious Stradivarius, but at the same time she was expressive without excess, favoring slight tugs of tempo over obvious rubato and maintaining clarity in dense, driving passages. The blistering first-movement cadenza was a show-stopper, and you could feel the audience retreat from the edge of their seats at the orchestra's re-entrance. Under the direction of guest conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni, the accompaniment was capable and responsive, if not a match for Koh in excitement.

The Montreal-born Zeitouni was the other lesser-known featured in the concert, and he was excellent in both Beethoven's "Egmont" Overture and another belated Oregon Symphony premiere, that of Igor Stravinsky's 1940 Symphony in C, an ingenious and charming tribute to the titans of the classical era. His direction was clear, with consistent momentum and dynamic control. Of many fine solos, principal oboe Martin Hebert deserves special mention for his excellent contribution throughout.