Angela Allen

French horns don’t get a lot of attention.

That is, unless one is tamed by Yugoslavian-born (now Croatian) Radovan Vlatkovic. He is embraced by horn musicians internationally, so no surprise that the entire Oregon Symphony’s horn section showed up to hear him Nov. 18 at Chamber Music Northwest’s sold-out Old Church concert in downtown Portland.

The non-horn players admire him, too. At least they did on Nov. 18. They gave him a 5-minute standing ovation.

Vlatkovic played Ludwig van Beethoven’s 15-minute three-movement Horn Sonata in F Major, Op. 17 without a note of music in front of him, and for the finale, the concert-centerpiece, Johannes Brahms’ 29-minute ultra-emotional Horn Trio in E-flat, Op. 40. He performed alongside violinist Soovin Kim and pianist Gloria Chien, CMNW’s artistic co-directors and musicians with whom any virtuoso would love to play.

Kim and Chien, who received the 2021 CMS Award for Extraordinary Service to Chamber Music Nov. 9 at Lincoln Center in New York City, have played with Vlatkovic many times. Aside from being friends and musical colleagues, the three are so versatile and skilled that they enhance each other’s music when they perform, carrying works to a higher and higher level. Chien can play anything with grace, letting the other instruments and voices tell their stories as she proved at the CMNW Summer Festival in her performances of Bela Bartók’s frenetic two-piano-plus-percussion sonata, and later, when she accompanied opera star Davone Tines in his Recital: A Mass, which included music by Bach, Caroline Shaw, and traditional spirituals reconfigured by TyShawn Sorey.

Chien’s husband, violinist Kim, a Paganini winner when he was 20 years old, plays with athleticism and sensitivity, telegraphing contagious exuberance when he’s performing. But Kim likes to praise others, and he calls Vlatkovik “a musical Michael Jordan. His complete instrumental command and the heart-melting beauty of his playing make him universally admired by his horn-playing peers, other musicians, and the general public.”

(If you missed Vlatkovic and Kim at the Old Church, maybe you heard them play the national anthem at the Portland Trail Blazers-Chicago Bulls game on Nov. 17–speaking of basketball.)

But back to Beethoven and Brahms. The Beethoven sonata showcased Vlatkovic’s agility and artistry. The French horn is a very difficult instrument to play; its notes are close together, making it easy to miss or split a note. But Vlatkovic doesn’t miss, and his horn sounded warm, full, and rich, rather than loud or, God forbid, clangorous. Beethoven wrote the piece at the last minute — he was an inveterate procrastinator—so his horn player, Giovanni Punto, didn’t have much practice time. Vlatkovic had the 15-minute piece memorized; it was clear he has played it many, many times, but was still giving it life.

Brahms loved the horn and learned to play it as a boy. His Horn Trio in E-flat, Op. 40 is a chamber-music crown jewel, and Brahms argued that the cello, another warm-sounding instrument, could substitute for the horn. The 29-minute piece is loaded with contrasts, and intensified by Chien’s rippling piano, its ups and downs are Romanticism writ large. The final two movements are a study in differences — a manic-depressive display or rather, depressive-manic, with the profoundly sad Adagio mesto followed by the Allegro con brio, a hugely chaotic playful section.

The program’s middle piece, played by Chien and Kim, gave Vlatkovic a break. Maurice Ravel’s Violin Sonata in G major, written shortly after World War 1, is a long way from the program’s Romantics’ pieces — with a bluesy jazz second movement. Ravel brings the violin and piano together despite his skepticism that the instruments could mesh. As Ravel realized upon finishing the piece, the violin and piano are in fact “compatible instruments whose incompatibility is emphasized here, without any attempt being made to reconcile their contrasted characters.”

The piece proved a beautiful challenge to listen to with its tonal contrasts, occasional discordant phrases and jazz riffs. It was modern anxious music. And when Soovin Kim and Gloria Chien play together, just about anything meshes.

Vlatkovic, 59—who before his solo and chamber-music career played horn for 18 years in the Radio Symphony Orchestra Berlin (now Deutsches Symphonie Orchester )—owns a list of credentials and awards a mile long, so impressive that he has earned one reviewer’s label as “the Croatian messenger of the gods of the valve horn.” Chien excels at whatever she plays. Kim is a master of his violin, infectiously inspiring.

We were privileged to hear these three musical artists in Portland. Though Vlatkovic will return to his home in Salzburg, Austria, we are lucky to have Chien and Kim in our midst.