sean shepherd

Oregon Symphony review: Russian revelation

Violinist Stefan Jackiw's performance of Prokofiev violin concerto with the orchestra brings new insights

by TERRY ROSS

Sergei Prokofiev composed his second violin concerto as he was about to abandon a whirlwind international existence as a piano soloist (of his own works and others’) and guest conductor to return to the Soviet Union, which turned out to be more intransigent than he had expected. Yearning to be closer to his Russian roots, Prokofiev hoped that his homeland (he was born in 1891, long before the Bolshevik revolution) would enable him to write music closer to his heart and less beholden to the Stravinskyan and super-modern tastes of the West.

The result was a mixed bag; although hailed on his return to the USSR as a hero, he soon fell victim to Stalin’s absurd strictures for artists and found himself, despite his enormous reputation in the West, tossed from pillar to post, a prize-winner one year and a pariah the next, until the end of his life in 1953.

Prokofiev’s second violin concerto was in a way his homage to a sort of music he hoped to enlarge upon in the future, more overtly lyrical than his famous piano concertos. Before moving from Paris to Moscow, he wrote his concerto for a French-Belgian violinist named Robert Soëtens, and it received its premiere in Madrid that same year, 1935.

Having approached it via a recording by Itzhak Perlman with Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, I was eager to hear my first live performance. It turned out to radically change my view of the concerto.

Stefan Jackiw performed with the Oregon Symphony.

First, the Oregon Symphony began its Russian-themed concert by playing an American work, but one with Russian connections. The young composer Sean Shepherd wrote Magiya (“magic” in Russian) for the National Youth Orchestra of the USA for its first season and tour with the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev. The seven-minute composition for full orchestra makes lavish use of the percussion section in a spirited romp, perfect for an orchestra of young players. Maestro Carlos Kalmar gave the piece the sort of reading any composer loves, attentive to the smallest detail yet in full command of the overall effect. A very effective concert-opener.

Next came what was for this audience member the high point of the evening, a riveting performance of Prokofiev’s concerto by soloist Stefan Jackiw and Kalmar’s Oregon Symphony. Unlike the Perlman recording, which treats the concerto more or less as a traditional showpiece, Kalmar and co. presented a nuanced and more delicate interpretation, but one that still contained plenty of Prokofiev’s muscularity.

The first and third Allegro movements were not racehorses but rather exercises in gossamer filigree superimposed on vigorous rhythms. And the middle movment Andante assai was positively stately. I felt as if I had heard the piece, for the first time, as it was meant to be played.

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