The conductor of last Sunday’s concert at the Auburn Performing Arts Center wasn’t quite new to the Auburn Symphony’s podium: Leif Bjaland stepped in at very short notice (after the abrupt retirement of founding music director Stewart Kershaw) to direct the holiday program in December 2015.
Now he is one of the finalists in the meticulous search for the right person to follow Kershaw’s enlightened building of the orchestra, now in its 20th season. (The ASO’s next concert, with second conducting finalist Nikolas Caoile, is April 30.)
Judging by the orchestra’s enthusiastic response at his final bow after Sunday’s concert, his work is appreciated. One musician told me he is well organized in rehearsal and knows how to get the wanted results from the musicians, valuable when there are few rehearsals and no money for more. Watching him as he conducted Dvorak’s “Carnival” Overture, he is precise and clear in his directions, dynamic as needed, but not a flashy podium dancer. The orchestra responded with a bright and vigorous performance with nuance and phrasing to color the whole.
The impression was even more favorable in Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations. In the fourteen variations Elgar wrote on a stately theme, Bjaland brought out the contrasts between the different characters Elgar was portraying, expansive or peaceful, lighthearted or moody, brassy, or ladylike, none more of a contrast than the majestic and moving “Nimrod” Variation followed by the enchanting one for flighty “Dorabella.” The orchestra followed Bjaland’s every gesture, resulting in an excellent performance.
In between these two came another familiar work, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with its fiendishly difficult solo part. The composer dedicated it to the great violinist Leopold Auer and was very hurt when Auer originally dismissed it as unplayable (though he came around later and taught it to his students).
At Sunday’s concert, it was played with passion, emotion, warmth, depth, maturity, and impeccable intonation and musicianship even in the hardest sections of playing very fast on more than one string at a time, by a 20-year-old violinist making his Northwest debut, Stephen Waarts from California. This was a performance of rich satisfaction to listen to. It’s no surprise that this young musician has been garnering prizes and concert opportunities around the world. Bjaland kept the orchestra closely with him.
For the first time ever at an ASO performance, the soloist played an encore, the second movement from Sonata No. 4 for solo violin by Belgian composer Eugene Isaye. Not a fireworks showoff piece, but a meditative quiet one, spare and lovely.
Philippa Kiraly comes to The SunBreak from The Gathering Note where she covered classical music for three years. She has been steeped in her field since early childhood and began writing as a critic in 1980. She has written for a variety of publications, as second critic for the Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal from 1983-1991 and, since moving to Seattle that year, in the same capacity for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until its print demise.