Concert review: Program change doesn’t detract from Portland Symphony’s ‘Rite of Spring’

Concert review: Program change doesn’t detract from Portland Symphony’s ‘Rite of Spring’

Eckart Preu, right, conducts violinist Jennifer Frautschi, left, and the Portland Symphony Orchestra. Photo courtesy of Portland Symphony Orchestra

Mainers know that spring can hold a few surprises. And while that warm-up season hasn’t arrived yet, the Portland Symphony Orchestra nonetheless added a shocker to its late-January program titled “The Rite of Spring.”

The long-awaited appearance of renowned guitarist Pepe Romero, who took the lead on Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez,” a signature piece for him, had to be canceled less than a week before the opening performance due to an unspecified health problem attributed to the legendary master. But a modified performance did go ahead Sunday afternoon after PSO Music Director/Conductor Eckart Preu announced that Romero would be here next season.

Violinist Jennifer Frautschi, an accomplished California-born performer, was brought in to replace the headliner to perform Felix Mendelssohn’s popular “Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64.” It wasn’t long into her performance before any sense of disappointment at the program change faded.

The Mendelssohn work, known for its technical demands on the soloist, was tackled with full dedication by the youthful Frautschi. The piece’s lively flow was spirited but assuredly kept intact as the soloist visited the transitional elements – from classical to romantic – that the composer helped create. Her visit to the familiar themes of the second and last movements feels fresh in her hands. Sophisticated, but far from sedate, Frautschi made everything work in a bravura performance for which she and the PSO received extended applause.

After a break, Preu released the animal. With an expansive PSO, the energetic conductor took everyone straight into an, at times, frighteningly powerful performance of “The Rite of Spring,” an infamous early work by Igor Stravinsky.

Not an easy listen, the legendary work shocked audiences more than a century ago and still packs a punch. Hoopry rhythms stimulate aggressive dissonances while the work tells a musical story based on a pagan spring ritual proposed by the composer. Always at risk of having its spectacular elements distract from its considerable subtleties, the piece asserts an unsettling power that Preu and company took to the limit.

The afternoon began on a more thoughtful note with a performance of Osvaldo Golijov’s much more recent “Sidereus”, a short overture, inspired by the writings of Galileo, that explores the heavens in a dramatic and even cinematic way. With just the right flavor of dark mystery in the mix, this is the type of searching piece one hopes to hear again soon, likewise the Mendelsohn concerto, while the Stravinsky “Rite”, even as dynamically performed as it was on Sunday, might wait a little longer for a repeat.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer living in Portland.

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