By BRUCE BROWNE
The Oregon Symphony confected both eye and ear candy for a large audience at Portland’s Schnitzer Hall at its last September concerts. One treat came from Austria, by way of Paris, one was inspired by our own Oregon treasures of nature and one well, not sweet, not savory, hardly digestible – but a treat nonetheless.
This concert marked the first Monday of the Oregon Symphony’s 120th season with the three-part SoundSights series. As a cherry on the top of that laudable milestone, this symphony program was deemed by BBC Music Magazine “[one of] “20 Events in North America Worth Seeing This September!” They might have been referring to either the commission, the classic or the castle – doesn’t matter, they all fit the bill.
Isn’t a commissioned premiere fun? Well, no, not always. It is a bit like a blind date. There is anticipation, hope and then there is the reality. In the case of Chris Rogerson’s Among Mountains it was love at first hearing and can’t wait to hear it again.
Called “a fully-grown composing talent” by the Washington Post, 28-year-old Rogerson certainly earned that designation with this premiere of Among Mountains, commissioned by the Oregon Symphony to herald its 120th opening concert. Mr. Rogerson already has thirteen orchestral works in his oeuvre and this brief one offered just the right exuberance and fanfare to mark the occasion. Just four minutes long, it’s destined to appear on many orchestral programs in the future.
Among Mountains is a representational piece which, according to the East Coast-based composer, is meant to conjure the majesty of the Oregon he experienced during childhood family visits. In the manner of Copland (Appalachian Spring) or Grofe (Grand Canyon), the Cascades stand tall and the mighty Columbia rolls. That is not to imply copying of style, but homage to representational intent.
The audience accessibility is broad spectrum. The piece is tonal, with numerous unprepared harmonic shifts to tickle the contemporary ear. Rogerson uses the hefty instrumentation well. All four major voices of the orchestra were respected and featured yet balanced overall and there was a compelling dramatic contour –neither drops in energy nor spikes. It was like soaring on an updraft in a glider over the Oregon landscape.
The Paris Symphony by another young composer, on the other hand, should not be taken as representation of Paris. Mozart’s 31st symphony is roughly 24 minutes of patent tricks, techniques and rudiments with motifs masquerading as melodies. Scholars point to particular Parisian musical preferences such as the coup d’archet or unison first tones. In three movements, this symphony is tonally predictable and arpeggios and scales abound. Sounds simplistic? Not the way the Oregon Symphony performed it.
Mozart was not in a good space by the time he reached Paris in 1777 after leaving his position in Salzburg. Poor Wolfgang had a bit of Bieber going on. Arrogant, his carefree youth already spent trying to earn a living (the Paris Symphony was his 300th+ composition), constantly touring, and gigs were not coming his way. Music salons thrived, however, and one music society commissioned a symphony from the 22 year old.
Monday night’s delight came from an airiness in the rendering. This orchestra knows how to make Mozart sound like Mozart. Music director Carlos Kalmar brought out each possible dip and sway; every phrase caressed and nurtured. One of the most difficult moments of rhythmic synchronization comes at the beginning of movement 3, which begins with rapid scale passages atop which the first “melodic” strains are heard in the upper voices. Finding the exact point of entry and holding fast was the only challenge for the orchestra. Perhaps a less courageous breakneck tempo would have alleviated the problem but it was worth the risk to let out the shaft and end the Paris symphony in glorious free fall. Great ride!
Although OSO does not cater to period instruments, they bow and blow with a necessary lightness of being more characteristic of historically informed styles than most heavyweight modern orchestras have until recently used. As important, Maestro Kalmar’s gestures are perfectly formed and timed to elicit grace and delicacy from the orchestra — perhaps the most important thing a conductor can impart after the downbeat, since he or she is the only mute in the process of making music.
Within one month of the premiere, Mozart’s mother, traveling with him, died and he returned to the Salzburg court in 1779. It would take a few more years for him to break from his father and from the Austrian court, and become a freelance composer in Vienna. Seven years later, he composed Don Giovanni, a tale of treachery and human tragedy…
…which is the only reasonable way to segue into the second half of the concert and the major audience draw of the evening, Bela Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle.
This 1911 opera is a danse macabre of butchery, love, sex, unbridled by societal decencies. Never a more collegial partnership: an opera, brought to the symphonic stage on which is installed the vibrating glass art of Northwest sculptor Dale Chihuly.
Two acclaimed international singers carried the drama of the opera: Judit, performed by Viktoria Vizin and Bluebeard, Gabor Bretz, are in love and move into Bluebeard’s dark, foreboding castle to begin their life together. Ms. Vizin sings with a rich mezzo soprano voice full of velvet and warm, dark colors, immediately imploring Bluebeard to open the doors of the castle to allow more light. The equally gifted Mr. Bretz, a vibrant bass with a easily accessible baritone range, pleads for her to keep the doors closed. They tell and live the tale, which crosses several thresholds before the final unraveling, due in large part to the final unveiling of Bluebeard’s three previous wives.
Our flesh and blood singers are native Hungarians. Ms. Visin gave an emotional portrayal of Judit in her journey through the castle. Mr. Bretz was more restrained in his acting but perhaps that was in keeping with Bluebeard’s well shuttered true persona.
Costuming was not prominent in this production. Bluebeard was in subdued browns. Judit’s gown, a velvet-like emerald green, moved with her, conveying her growing anxiety. A different fabric might have reflected the varied colors of the Chihuly, thereby reflecting her entrapment by the revealed secrets of her beloved Bluebeard.
But the stars of this performance of Bluebeard were just as much the orchestra and the art work used as set. The latter supplied an important literary element. The audience needed a locale and, minus the title edifice itself – the castle – the Chihuly sculptures served very well.
The story moves in a series of seen literary reveals, matched on the set by the monolithic structures housing the six Chihuly creations, each bringing a frisson of beauty followed by terror, as each of seven doors opened at the request of Bluebeard’s new(est) bride symbolizes a deeper psychosis embedded in the castle. There is behind each door beauty, grandeur, horror – glimpses into the complex Bluebeard.
The first door reveals to Judit a torture chamber, walls stained with blood; the second, Bluebeard’s armory – sword tip bloodied. Drama-wise, the audience is now collectively urging Judit to escape. But, no, she must push on and reveal the blood splattered treasures and jewels behind door three. The contrast of the beauty of the Chihuly and the lush allure of Bartok’s orchestration seem to draw her in, hold her in place – perhaps even drive her forward — to door four, which offers her comfort, hope. Behind it is Bluebeard’s garden, which, according, again, to the music and glass, is intricate, mature – and watered with, you guessed it, blood. We are sinking into our seats.
Bluebeard this entire time is urging her not to go on – wanting to protect her or protect himself….both….but knows he cannot. And so he relinquishes the key to the fifth door, from which the vastness of his kingdom can be seen under a blood-red sky. It is only after the sixth door opens to a lake of tears that Judit wonders about the fate of Bluebeard’s other wives. She finds the answer behind door seven – absent of Chihuly as it is already occupied. Judit, were you not warned?
The orchestra was competent with the demanding score. Kalmar was fully in command, and drew a dramatic, at times earth shaking reading from his musicians. The balance between orchestral voices and the voices on stage was excellent. There was an awkwardness in Judit having to touch the structures to open the doors but more distracting was the sight of stage hands moving surreally behind the doors.
This singular operatic work of the 29-year-old Bartok is an example of the artistic symbolist period of the late 1800s. In painting, Munch, Klimpt, Kahlo; in other music such as Schoenberg’s Pierre Lunaire, Richard Strauss’s Salome and Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande. In this realm, Bluebeard’s “castle” might be the man himself, the ‘doors’ the locked compartments of his true soul. Judit might be flesh and blood or a manifestation of a deranged mind. Has Dale Chihuly now joined this symbolist camp? Or perhaps Schopenhauer would say he has been there a while already. Well, you have free will to decide for yourself.
But do decide to see the next two works in the OSO SoundSights series: Turangalila of Messiaen in December, and Stravinsky’s Persephone, coming later in the season, in 2017.
Portland choir director Bruce Browne directed Portland Symphonic Choir and choral music programs at Portland State University for many years and was founder and director of Choral Cross-Ties, a professional choral group in Portland.
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