Peer Gynt in Astoria

19 June 2010


The faux Venetian splendor of the restored Liberty Theater in Astoria proved to be a great venue.

The Astoria Music Festival is underway at present, and the offerings of recent years have significantly brought its program up to admirably high standards. My mom bought a couple of tickets to tonight’s program titled “A Midsummer Nordic Night” and I attended the performance with her in Astoria this evening. Unfortunately since my camera was recently stolen I was unable to take any pictures this evening.

Henrik Ibsen, author of the dramatic prose poem Peer Gynt.

Almost exactly a year ago I attended the Portland Baroque Orchestra’s performance of the complete Brandenburg Concertos, and it was an enjoyable experience to hear music performed live that I knew so well. Similarly, this evening, it was a pleasure to hear Grieg’s music for Peer Gynt performed live. And more than the music, there was a narrator (David Ogden Stiers) who read parts of the story to link together the musical performances, and several of the musical performances included performances by dancers. So while this wasn’t a full production of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, it was much more than simply listening to Grieg’s music on a CD.

Edvard Grieg, composer of the music for Peer Gynt.

The performance was wonderfully crisp, clear, and dynamic. Not counting the three choruses present for the production, there were forty players in the Orchestra (if I counted correctly) and from these forty players the conductor, Keith Clark, managed a marvelous depth and breadth of tone color. To add Norwegian authenticity to the performance, the Ultima Thuhle Choir from Tromsø was present to give vigorous expression to the Norwegian text of In the Hall of the Mountain King and other less familiar parts of the score. As I was listening I was thinking how the theme of In the Hall of the Mountain King belongs to the small number of universally known passages from the classical tradition, like the theme from Beethoven’s Fifth.

Jean Sibelius, composer of the Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47 that constituted the first performance of the evening.

Peer Gynt was the second part of the program, following the intermission. The first part of the program was Jean Sibelius’s Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47 from 1903. The soloist was Elizabeth Pitcairn. As soon as she began playing I was struck by the forceful sound of her violin, and I was asking myself, “Is this because of the violin, her performance technique, the performance space, or a combination of all of these?” Reading the program I discovered the Ms. Pitcairn performs with a 1720 Stradivarius — the famous “red violin” that was the basis for the film The Red Violin. I suspect that it is a rather rare event when a Stradivarius comes to Astoria and my own Clatsop County, and I felt very privileged to be present at such a performance. It may well be the only time in my life I get to hear a Stradivarius live, and I can assure you that the experience is well worth whatever price one might need to pay for admission. Pitcairn played the entire concerto without so much as glancing at a sheet of music. She gave a memorable performance, and the orchestra accompanied her with a sensitive, nuanced, and even delicate performance of its own.

Elizabeth Pitcairn with the famous 'Red Violin,' a 1720 Stradivarius.

All-in-all it was an excellent performance and an enjoyable evening. I hope that the Astoria Music Festival will continue to improve its offerings. If it does so, it will not fail to achieve renown and recognition.

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