Concert review: 45th Parallel’s Transfigured Night


Portland's 45th Parallel performed the American premiere of Peter Maxwell Davies'

Portland’s 45th Parallel performed the American premiere of Peter Maxwell Davies’ The Last Island.


The chamber ensemble 45th Parallel outdid themselves last Tuesday night at the Old Church in Portland, bringing together a crack team of local solo and ensemble string players – including Oregon Symphony concertmaster Sarah Kwak and principal cellist Nancy Ives, violist and renowned composer Kenji Bunch, and celebrated touring cellist and Portland State University professor Hamilton Cheifetz – to perform three very different sextets spanning 150 years. They were rewarded with a full house, which included a number of leading local arts figures and none other than Portland Mayor Charlie Hales, who happened to sit down right next to me. Portland All Classical Radio (which co-produced the concert with 45th Parallel) host Robert McBride launched the proceedings with a short, lively and informative welcoming talk.

The ensemble dove right in to the American premiere of the turbulent The Last Island, composed just five years ago by one of the grand old men of British classical music, Peter Maxwell Davies, dense upper strings combining with thick low pizzicato chords to produce an arresting atmosphere. The island of the title is far offshore and yet easily visible from the composer’s home in Scotland’s Orkney Islands, and substantial enough to have briefly been home to a monastery centuries ago. It may be rather predictable to call forth images of gray seas, fitful sun breaks, arctic winds and driving spray, yet they’re hard to avoid. It’s a work of swirls and interjections, not stately harmony and big tunes, and yet for those who enjoy the darker moods of the Oregon coast, not particularly forbidding.

It’s always difficult to evaluate a major new work in such an individual style on first hearing, but the passion and energy of the players (who here included the Oregon Symphony’s Jennifer Arnold and Gregory Ewer, 45th Parallel’s artistic director) were undeniable, and they left me eager to hear it again. At the very least, it made a fine encore to the focus on Sir Peter during the recent March Music Moderne festivities.

With Arnold Schoenberg’s pre-dodecaphonic, pre-atonal Transfigured Night, inspired by the rather creepy poem of the same title by German poet Richard Dehmel, I was on much more familiar ground. In outrageously lush late Romantic musical language, the Austrian composer’s 1899 masterpiece fills out the emotional story of a walk in the moonlit woods by an adulterous, pregnant woman and her forgiving new lover. Every gesture is in ornate technicolor. Her dragging steps, her roiling fear of the results of her confession, her self-torturing feelings of shame, her abject feelings of unworthiness all stuff the first half, overflowing from the predominant minor key into outbursts that foreshadow the composer’s later revolutionary musical directions. Her lover’s fairy-tale magnanimity, his utterly smitten assumption of responsibility, and his ecstatic ruminations on the radiance of the night stuff the second, major key half, apparently banishing all such outbursts beyond the proverbial land of sweetness and light – at least, there aren’t any more of them.

I gently mock, but there are indeed many passages of transcendent beauty, and for all the lushness, each of the many strung together sections is kept fairly concise, the only lapses stemming from over-reliance on the even then old-fashioned device of sequence (where an entire phrase is immediately repeated verbatim in a different key).

All this was expertly and fluently presented by the 45th Parallel musicians (here including Portland Baroque Orchestra’s Adam LaMotte and Oregon Symphony’s Vali Phillips), who only very occasionally drifted away from the precision and clarity needed to keep the saccharine surface in balance with the underlying musical muscle. (This balance, by the way, is almost impossible to maintain in the later, more commonly performed string orchestra arrangement.) I wish they had let the many soloistic passages sing out above their background a bit more, but I was nonetheless, ultimately, mightily impressed. From a few brief comments we exchanged, it seems Mayor Hales was also.

Johannes Brahms’s popular and often performed op. 18 Sextet was the oldest work on the program, having been composed on the eve of the American Civil War. Brahms was apparently uninterested in and possibly even unaware of cross-Atlantic strife over slavery and states’ rights, for the work made a relaxed, good-humored and sometimes toe-tapping finale to the concert. It was a bit too relaxed for me; I tend to feel Brahms as a composer was at his best when something was bothering him. But the musicians again acquitted themselves well and the audience rewarded them with a (somewhat relaxed) full-house standing ovation.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers.

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