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When "Turkey with Russian Dressing" is Cause for Celebration

Walla Walla, Cordiner Hall
03/07/2006 -  
ChenYi: Celebration
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Violin Concerto No.5 "Turkish"
Piotr Illytch Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 "Pathetique"

Jay Zhong (violin)
Walla Walla Symphony
Yaacov Bergman (conductor)

The promise of "Turkey with Russian Dressing" is unlikely to excite food or music connoisseurs. Does the misnomer for Mozart's Violin Concerto No.5 really need to be rubbed in (though nicknamed the "Turkish" concerto, its folk elements are Hungarian)? Does is seem odd to think of music as significant in scope and music history as Tchaikovsky's Symphony No.9 as "dressing?" However, those who could look past the unpalatably playful title of the Walla Walla Symphony's recent performance were rewarded with an evening of delectable music. The Symphony's musical "play" reflected a more sophisticated good humor that honored the ensemble's venerable history.

Founded in 1907, the Walla Walla Symphony is "oldest continuous symphony orchestra west of the Mississippi," and this concert was a testament to its lasting success. Though Walla Walla (pop. 30, 000) is almost 200 miles from the nearest big city, its support from Whitman college, conductor's connections to a global music community , and local enthusiasm combine to accomplish the symphony's original intent: to bring "the world's best music" and "visiting artists of renown" to Walla Walla. And the community receives them with true appreciation.

The evening opened with some jovial and enlightening remarks by conductor Yaacov Bergman and composer Chen Yi. Walla Walla was fortunate enough to have this renowned composer in residence for three days as a guest artist/professor at Whitman College. Dr Chen spoke articulately and energetically about her work, offering audiences valuable insight into the evening's first piece, and subtly providing a serious undertone to the evening's good humor. Celebration, like the composer's performance, was energetic and welcoming. It began in a rush with a repetitive minimalist motif in the strings, gradually building to a full orchestral celebration of various instrumental layers. Despite the dissonance and occasionally clamorous texture of the piece, it remained tractable, never chaotic. The overall effect was one of a large celebration in which diverse musical characters shared a unified mood. The rushing string motif gave way to a more lilting joy at the signal of the brass section, and glissandos imitated excited speech. Quick, dramatic dynamic changes gave audiences a new rush toward the end of the piece, and a huge crescendo after a moment of silence finished Celebration with a bang.

The harmonic clarity and sparse instrumentation of Mozart's Violin Concerto No.5 offered a nice contrast to Celebration. Its light tone eased the transition from one piece to the next by echoing the buoyant mood of its predecessor. In the Allegro aperto, the orchestra opened with another rush of strings, this time slowed by Mozart's surprising adagio entrance for solo violin. Jay Zhong, a popular California pedagogue, was the featured soloist. What first struck me about his playing was his warm clear tone, the lyrical ease of his line, and perfect instincts regarding trills and vibrato---there was neither too much nor too little and they seemed naturally and effortlessly produced (which, of course, is the product of considerable effort). There was occasionally too much of a tonal contrast between lower and higher registers as the first movement progressed, but this improved considerably in the second movement. In the Adagio, Zhong had moments of lilting lyricism that were truly moving, but the overall pace seemed just a bit too slow, not building enough momentum to sustain the ending solo work. In the Tempo di minuetto-allegro, however, Zhong gave the sense of a light energetic dance, and there was a heightened sense of call and response between him and the orchestra. The combination of folk and classical musical elements in this last movement seemed a good match to this small town with a big appreciation for art music, and the audience responded with enthusiastic applause.

After intermission, Tchaikovsky's SymphonyNo.6 rounded the program out nicely, recapitulating the full orchestra texture of the first piece, but exploring more somber emotion in a romantic musical idiom. It was also a good choice for highlighting the orchestra's strong wind section. The strings entered weakly in the first movement and the cellos weren't quite up to speed at first. But the section energetically recovered by the end of the movement and the violins negotiated upward glissandos particularly well. The orchestra was strongest as a whole during the last two movements, particularly the fourth. The audience responded to the Allegro molto vivace with unbridled applause much to the conductor's chagrin. (He curtly thrust his hand with four fingers extended at the rabble rouser who instigated the audience's breech of decorum.) All sections of the orchestra demonstrated strong discipline and musicality in the fourth movement. Good balance and responsiveness among sections beautifully articulated the melodies and message of struggling spirit. The movement ended with stopped horns rawly jarring the audience with relish and the strings smoothly guiding the orchestra to a seemingly infinite, breathtaking, final diminuendo.

Rebecca Packard



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