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Astoria Music Festival sparkles with first-rate soloists, top-notch orchestral playing, honoring David Bowie, Philip Glass and more

By HOLLY JOHNSON // Conductor Keith Clark stars in the annual Classical Music fest.

The Astoria Music Festival presented the coastal town with a string of jewel-like presentations opening weekend June 17-18 at the beautiful renovated 1925 Liberty Theatre. We attended the Saturday night special offering orchestral music by minimalist Philip Glass, and a sterling presentation of Elgar’s Cello Concerto performed by festival favorite Sergey Antonov. Then the Sunday afternoon show was equally impressive, with the sparkling centerpiece here being a riveting performance by violinist Elizabeth Pitcairn of Mendelssohn’s Concerto in E Minor for Violin and Orchestra.

Much of the festival’s growing popularity surely has to do with conductor Keith Clark, whose intelligent baton work pulled together much of the impressive orchestral sound we heard during both events. I’d never before been to the historic Liberty Theatre, and was charmed by the entire effect, from its restored Chinese-lantern style chandelier in the ceiling’s center to its tranquil paintings of Venice in panels. I was also taken with its golden hued walls and architectural ornamentation, and its serviceable acoustics, better in the back, it seemed, than the front rows.

Saturday night gave us a luscious dose of Glass, whose Symphony No. 4 “Heroes,” (allegedly in a Northwest premiere) honors late pop star David Bowie’s album “Heroes,” released in 1977. It is from Bowie’s Berlin period, and his song “Heroes” has been called a catalyst to the fall of the Berlin wall in the late’80s. Glass’s style, of course, is a far cry from pop music, with its simplification of harmony, melody and modulation and constant repetitive rhythmic cycles, (akin to Hindu ragas). To me, the most appealing of the six movements was “Abdulmajid,” a fusion of Near Eastern musical structures and patterns based on Bowie’s superb piece of the same title. It’s unusual music to traditional ears, but the Astoria audience responded enthusiastically. The orchestra was sharply attuned to Glass’s work, and delivered some fine playing under Clark’s direction.

Antonov’s cello solo playing in the Elgar was simply luminous. Lots of sweet sound in the opening adagio movement, then passion in ensuing phrases as only the cello can deliver. Antonov, looking like a blond Russia film star, tucked into the music with superb, seemingly effortless bowing. The concerto has such a haunting yet hopeful main melody that it was hard not to be swept away as movement followed movement evoke a sense of beauty and wisdom. A real jewel in the crown of cello works. A Tchaikovsky Gold Medal Cellist,Antonov never rushed the pacing, and seemed to play as if paying reverence to the piece. The English composer completed the tender, elegaic concerto in 1919, during a period of new-found peace after World War I.

Elizabeth Pitcairn

The orchestra’s fine brass and percussive sections also delivered a first-rate version of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare to the Common Man” at the evening’s opening.
If you thought you were in for a low-key Sunday afternoon at the matinee concert the next day, you would have been wrong. Titled “Matinee with the Red Violin,” the shimmering concert featured violin virtuoso Elizabeth Pitcairn. A performer at Carnegie Hall, Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Kimmel Center and more top venues (her credits just march on), Pitcairn entered the stage with her gleaming Red Mendelssohn Stradivarius from 1720. The instrument was impressive, but so was Pitcairn’s wonderful slim-fitting gown, a lacy black affair with jewel-like clusters. Regal and sumptuous.

After we admired the visual, the audio part blew us away as Pitcairn spun out Meldelssohn’s Concerto in E Minor. The composer brought in an almost instant introduction of the solo instrument in the turbulent first movement, and Pitcairn tackled it with poise and might, filling the hall with energy. Her delivery of the final joyous allegro vivace was dazzling as a rare gem. After the music, Pitcairn talked a bit about the “voyage” of her precious violin, the inspiration for the film “The Red Violin,” once owned by a heir of Mendelssohn himself, and eventually purchased in 1990 by a member of Pitcairn’s family and bestowed upon her. The musician kept her ownership for secret for a long time until her solo career took off and put her in the public eye. It’s been said that both Pitcairn and the violin have found their soulmates. Jewels both.

The festival continues through July 3, and includes the opera “Il Trovatore” featuring Angela Meade, Eugene Opera’s “Little Women” and more. Visit astoriamusicfestival.org or call 503-325-9896 for information and tickets.

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Doug Smith

Elizabeth Pitcairn's performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto was quite possibly the finest live violin performance I have ever witnessed. My metabolism has forever been altered. Bravo Astoria Music Festival. Bravo!

Dirk Junge

Fabulous Elizebeth ! So proud of you .. With great admiration. Your Cous. Dirk

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