Oregon Symphony review: Russian revelation

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


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.

Mr. Jackiw gave his European premiere performance at age fourteen with Mendelssohn’s immensely beautiful and lyrical concerto. On the basis of his playing of this Prokofiev concerto, I intend to see if I can track down a recording of his Mendelssohn. Meanwhile I shall enjoy Jascha Heifetz’s Prokofiev recordings — he premiered the work in America in 1935. He was a Lithuanian Russian, and his feeling for his compatriot was powerful.

Sergei Prokofiev in New York, 1918

After the intermission break, Maestro Kalmar and the band gave an exquisite version of Stravinsky’s celebrated (but not that often played) Divertimento. It was a fitting celebration of Tchaikovsky, the 35th anniversary of whose death provoked its composition. Here we find Stravinsky, as in Petrouchka and Pulcinella, at his most lovably tuneful, weaving the melodies of Tchaikovsky in and around his own tasteful orchestrations. Cotton candy, with a Russian twist.

Then it was time for Romeo and Juliet, perhaps the finest of Tchaikovsky’s literary productions. The band indulged itself in the gorgeous love theme, but the sword-fighting scenes were equally vivid, as was the very moving scene in the tomb, as the doomed couple take their leave of a world too fractious to sustain their love.

Recommended recordings

Shepherd: Magiya
Magiya (European Première) — YouTube

Prokofiev: Concerto No. 2 for Violin and Orchestra
Jascha Heifetz, violin; Boston Symphony Orchestra, Serve Koussevitsky conducting, 1937 (RVA Victor LCT-6).
Jascha Heifetz, violin; Boston Symphony Orchestra, Charles Munch conducting (RCA Red Seal RCD1-7019).

Stravinsky: Divertimento from The Fairy’s Kiss
• Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Igor Stravinsky conducting (7-Sony Classical 884142).

Tchaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet
• Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Georg Solti conducting, 1986 (London D125179).

Terry Ross is a Portland freelance journalist and the director of The Classical Club, through which he offers classical music appreciation sessions. He can be reached at classicalclub@comcast.net.

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