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An old-school risk-taker: violinist Elmar Oliveira.

Supersized Chamber Ensemble
By B.A. Nilsson

Saratoga Chamber Music Festival
Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Aug. 5

While itís true that long-lived chamber ensembles develop an impressive consistency of sound, star performers also have a long history of combining into groups to tackle the more intimate corners of the repertory. Violinist Elmar Oliveira made the transition brilliantly at the opening concert of this seasonís Saratoga Chamber Music Festival; before appearing with the orchestra to perform the mighty Brahms concerto (see review below), he was part of a trio by DvorŠk and a Glazunov quintet.

Oliveira has the distinction of being the only American winner of a first prize in the Moscow Tchaikovsky International Competition. He is also the first violinist to receive the Avery Fisher Prize. But heís also something of a throwback to an earlier tradition of the virtuoso, both in terms of the repertory he favors and in his playing approach, which features an element too often absent from the sound-alike stars of today: risk-taking.

This was especially true in Glazunovís Quintet in A Major, Op. 39, a work written in 1899, during the composerís long tenure as professor of music at St. Petersburg Conservatory. Scored for string quartet with an additional cello, it thus features a rich, bass-heavy sonority accentuated by Glazunovís characteristic use of the viola, which presents the first theme of the first movement.

The first violin part can lend itself to a star turn, but Oliveira was inspiring without being overwhelming. It didnít hurt that he had Philadelphia Orchestra violinist Michael Ludwig on second violin; Ludwig also has a soloistís sensibility (and talent), and the pair of them surged and subsided and traded off figures with the kind of aplomb that would have you think theyíd been playing together for years.

Chantal Juillet, music director for the series, played viola, and the cellists, John Koen and Alex Veltman, are from the Philadelphia Orchestra, so there was no lack of talent around the rest of the circle.

Having chosen the cello-rich instrumentation, Glazunov was no slouch about exploring the possibilities. From the workís opening, when one of the cellos takes over the violaís theme, to the vigorous last movement, when the cellos seem to gang up on the other instruments, seizing one moment after another, we enjoyed a timbre the usual quartet configuration canít match. That difference was especially emphasized in the third movement as Glazunov flirts with a fugue and thus shifts the sonorities quickly.

DvorŠkís Terzetto, Op. 74, uses no cello at all; with Oliveira and Ludwig again on violins and Juillet on viola, we were treated to a sunny but introspective work that made up for its lack of a real get-you-in-the-gut slow movement with a boisterous scherzo, a Czech dance livened by the scratchy sul ponticello effect called for from the players. And it was exciting to watch the trio cut loose in the final pages.

Pianist Emanuel Ax offered his own virtuosity in a different but equally impressive way, first with the brief set of three Images, book two, by Debussy, a work of haunting moments that needs an extremely deft touch. Ravelís Valses nobles et sentimentales is a whimsical contrast, sharing with his La Valse some of that grandiose but fading belle epoque feel. Rich in its detail and brimming with melody, it contrasted nicely with the Debussy and showed, by way of Axís excellent playing, how easily tenderness can be summoned by deftly flying fingers.

The theme of this seasonís chamber festival is Souvenirs of St. Petersburg, and Juillet spoke learnedly and engagingly about that cityís history before the Glazunov quintet was performed; a lobby display at the Spa Little Theatre features an appropriate range of books and photos.

Mostly German Mood Music

The Philadelphia Orchestra
Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Aug. 8

Also Sprach Zarathustra, which contains one of the most famous opening moments in music, goes on for another half-hour as composer Richard Strauss musically limns a journey through the powerful ideas in Friederich Nietzscheís book. The big introduction is followed by eight sections, each taking its title from the book, but this really is Strauss at his best, conjuring moods, wreaking magic with his orchestral forces.

As the performance last week by the Philadelphia Orchestra proved, itís also a stunning piece of outdoor music. Even in the SPAC amphitheater it shared the sounds of nature, and this being a portrait of manís evolution, nature is the proper setting.

Conductor Charles Dutoit continued his four-concert tour of the concertos by Brahms with the Violin Concerto, played by Elmar Oliveira. Written in 1878, itís an autumnal enough work to also warrant a link with nature, but nature threw a curve-ball in terms of Fridayís heat, which settled uncomfortably upon audience and musicians and played particular havoc with Oliveiraís violin.

Actually, the fiddle itself held in tune impressively, but the violinist had to dry the instrumentís neck frequently to make sure his fingers would adhere. But a couple of sweat-induced slips hardly dimmed the overall effect of the performance, which was romantic and majestic and well-suited to the concertoís demands.

As noted in the review of Oliveiraís chamber music performance, heís something of an anomaly on the concert stage, a violinist who isnít afraid of taking risks and who appreciates (and uses) a wider range of mood-enhancing techniques than most modern fiddlers. He has a lush, Kreisler-like vibrato, and heís not afraid to slip in a keening, Kreisler-like slide when it makes musical sense.

The piece is a conversation between violin and orchestra, and each side held up its end admirably, especially in the dreamy second movement, which was rendered as lyrical as necessary without getting overly sentimental. By the end of the gypsy-rhythmed finale, this had become a superb collaboration, and Oliveira and Dutoit were treated to a standing ovation.

Ravelís lighthearted Rhapsodie Espagnole opened the concert: frothy fun that purports to portray Spain but seems to wander at times to the Far East. Ravelís prowess as an orchestrator is well established, but it still was a treat to discover again his skill at writing for woodwinds, matched by virtuoso work upon those instruments by the orchestraís musicians.

And then Also Sprach, giving the sparse house a more-than-generous share of music. Although Nietzscheís book is controversially famous for its portrait of a superman, the Strauss version doesnít convey the expected bombast. (It can be argued that Straussís favorite subject was himself, and this is just another autobiography.) Whatever the intended program, the piece is a fantastic collection of the dances and interludes characteristic of Strauss, with a unifying thread provided by variations on the opening motif. Concertmaster David Kim soloed nicely in some of the sunnier waltz sequences, and we were left, as darkness settled, with that weird and quiet pulse between a B Major woodwind chord and the plucked C Major of the strings.

óB.A. Nilsson

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