Guest Conductor Per Brevig Inspires Orchestra to New Heights
The Oberlin Orchestra was recently given a rare treat — the opportunity to be conducted by Per Brevig, a guest conductor with a long and remarkable career on both sides of the podium.
Under his direction, the Oberlin Orchestra sounded perhaps the best I have ever heard it. Generally, the Oberlin Orchestra tends to play well technically, but without spirit or ambition, and the different sections war against each other instead of blending.
However, they responded well to Brevig’s calm direction. Even as the orchestra raged more passionately, playing with more fire than I have ever heard from them, the maestro’s conducting stayed smooth, precise, never excessive and perfectly exact.
The concerto soloist, senior J. Freivogel, was all animation in contrast to Brevig’s calm. The violin seemed to be the only stationary part of him — everything else was a blur of passionate movement.
Freivogel’s command of Béla Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2 was masterful; he seemed to know each and every note inside out, like the names of his family. But he was, believe it or not, almost too perfect. He played very fiercely, but at times it seemed as if he played the concerto alone, with little give and take from the orchestra. Eventually, the orchestra caught on to his fire — and his tempo — easing gently off his swells into silence.
Still, Freivogel played like a consummate professional, with a professional’s energy and confidence. The level of his commitment to the concerto was obvious.
The slow, beautiful second movement was played with a grace and intensity that was as demanding as the concerto itself. The final cadenza at the close of the third movement did not seem effortless, but rather, polished to shiny perfection. Freivogel even played the silences, leaving them hanging, suspended while no one in the audience breathed.
The Bartók had several exquisite woodwind solos, especially in the first movement. The timpani were also particularly notable, driving into the third movement with a fierce, almost jazzy rumble. In that movement, the gentle underscoring of the lower strings was particularly sensitive to the soloist.
The opening piece must be reviewed with a disclaimer — your humble critic dislikes Wagner. Still, the orchestra played his Overture to The Flying Dutchman with a great deal of spirit and technical achievement. The strings were solid, particularly the violins.
The woodwinds were slightly out of tune and the horns were occasionally a bit delayed, though generally solid over difficult passages. There could have been a little more coordination between the strings and the brass — the strings would decrescendo gently while the brass followed late, faltering.
The overture opens with a musical description of a storm at sea, led by swelling violins and crashing horns. What I dislike about Wagner is that he fails to do anything new for me — he does not challenge my expectations of what a scene should look like.
The roiling of the storm sounds exactly like a storm, complete with cymbal crashes like an overwritten adventure movie soundtrack. However, Brevig’s measured conducting brought some of Wagner’s overwrought tempestuousness under control.
Petrushka: Burlesque in Four Scenes, from Stravinsky’s second ballet, is another piece of music with a story, but of a very different nature. The scene of the bustling marketplace is definitively set but the images the music conjures are just of people, not of any particular state of mind, which is very different than Wagner’s emotional spoonfeeding.
Petrushka was probably the strongest of the three pieces, played with the most concentration and sensitivity, though it was clear the orchestra was flagging by the end. The horns in particular sounded tired, while the trumpets and lower brass seemed only to pick up steam.
As for the woodwinds, they were playful but a bit hesitant and breathy,
especially the flutes. Even the violins seemed to lose a little fire, but under
Brevig’s direction, the orchestra finished the final tableau with a
spectacular, passionate roar.