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Elmar Oliveira with ASO and Riverdance.

Elmar Oliveira and ASO Robinson Center Music Hall Jan. 16 When it’s OK to like France, Russia The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra put on a spectacular performance in collaboration with luminary violinist Elmar Oliveira last weekend at the Robinson Center. Oliveira has won international acclaim, garnering such prestigious awards as the Avery Fisher Prize, first place at the Naumberg International Competition and G.B. Dealey Competition, and is also the first and only American violinist to be awarded the Gold Medal at Moscow’s Tchaikovsky International Competition. Maestro David Itkin, the musical director of the ASO, conducted of one of the most gorgeous classical performances I have witnessed. The program opened with “Espana” by late 19th-century French composer Emmanuel Chabrier. Itkin described the rhapsody as a charming blend of Spanish and French influences, like two native hors d’oeuvres — “a papaya and a croissant,” Itkin said in a brief introduction. The program’s main course, however, focused on a “Violin Concerto” by Shostakovich and performed by Oliveira and the ASO. Oliveira stood center stage in a seamless execution of the four-part piece. During the solo cadenza in the third part, Oliveira’s face held an intense concentration as his fingers commanded a stirring and emotional musical arrangement. At times his violin seemed to whine anxiously, while at other times it whirred in volatile fury. Although the violin seems a dainty and vulnerable instrument, Oliveira makes it the most emphatic of all, and proved himself a tireless virtuoso. The final portion of the program consisted of Maurice Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloe: Suites 1 and 2,” performed by the ASO. The piece, which was received with trepidation in its debut in Paris in 1937, contains complex arrangements and odd meter, and coupled with an ill-sorted story of mythological gods and nymphs confronted by pirates, it took early French audiences aback. It is now, however, in Itkin’s words, “an impressionistic staple of 20th-century repertoire” and was performed flawlessly by the ASO. With its tender frame, subtle musical textures and lithe yet forceful tones, no sound can fill an auditorium quite like the rugged strings of a violin. Since this humble critic is also a novice violinist himself, such a masterful display was very impressive. I felt compelled to return home immediately to feel the bow in my palm, the body beneath my chin and aspirations at my fingertips. — By Dustin Allen Riverdance Robinson Center Music Hall Jan. 17 High-steppin’ show The caller to our office late last week was adamant. He took exception to our paper’s description that the show “Riverdance” would feature the music, song and dance of Ireland. Never mind, of course, that those words come right out of the Riverdance program. False advertising? How would we know, we’d never seen it, much less been to Ireland. We’re paraphrasing here, because we weren’t taking notes, but he said something along the lines of “Riverdance has about as much to do with Ireland as Taco Bell has anything to do with Mexico.” Riverdance, however, could be compared with Taco Bell’s products, he inferred, mainly being cheesy. OK, Riverdance probably isn’t for everyone, though everyone who could get a ticket was there packing Robinson Center on opening night. It sold out the Tuesday performance, too, and was likely to sell out Wednesday night’s show. If you waited until this week to get good Riverdance seats, your best bet was going to Wednesday’s matinee. We’ll acknowledge that cheese seems to sell in these parts, more so than daring Broadway theater such as “Rent.” Some use cheesy to describe Las Vegas hotel shows, and “Riverdance” in many ways reminded us of those thunderous, flashy spectacles. It also felt overly long by the second flamenco number (OK, flamenco and Ireland don’t seem synonymous to us) and even more stepping and stomping by the Irish dance group. But all 2,600 in attendance were on their feet in standing ovation at the end of two hours of music, song and dance that seemed mostly applied to an Irish storyline (from the settling of the island to its early pagan worship and mysticism to the emigrants leaving for America in the 1800s). The highlight of the show, and the moment that drew the first rousing ovation, was a fascinating contrast of tap-dance of two young black men, DeAndre Lewis Wolf and Corey Hutchins, juxtaposed with the Irish step dance of three white fellows, a competition as it were but also symbolic of the Irish and black cultures colliding on the big-city streets of the early 20th century. The Irish trio was led by Sean Beglan, the main male dancer in the company, today’s touring Michael Flatley, as it were, who in all his moments seemed to display rubbery legs. At this point in the second act, having seen several examples of step-dance, this display was refreshing as well as wowing, and the crowd showed its appreciation with the best response of the night. We also enjoyed the harmony of the six-person singing group with its dissonant chords, and the Riverdance Band also provided welcome relief from what could have been monotony had the program been simply step-dance. But even the haunting whistle and violin got to be a bit much as the second act dragged on after the tap vs. step moment. Still, kudos were in order for Niamh Ni Charra for her fancy fiddle work and Declan Masteron on uilleann pipes and the whistles. At times, traditional Irish seemed to venture closer to jazz, and Carl Geraghty was more than adequate on the sax, though there were moments that music sounded like Kenny G. meets Gaelic Storm from “Titanic.” And during the flamenco parts, it was as if composer Bill Whelan had borrowed straight from the ’70s rock group Kansas. It was fun, though, and full of energy, and far less cheesy than we might have expected. — By Jim Harris
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