Oregon Symphony review: Making and missing the magic

Orchestra’s performance of lesser known works more than makes up for its humdrum Beethoven  

by TERRY ROSS

The Oregon Symphony’s November 5th, 6th, and 7th concerts bore the title “Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.” As several ushers and audience members told this reviewer in reference to the nearly full house at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Monday the 7th, “Oh yes. Beethoven.” The Symphony knows what sells tickets. Put the magic name on the posters and the people will come.

Fair enough, but in the event the orchestra also played two other substantial pieces before the intermission, and played them with more flair than Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F Major.

Guest conductor Hans Graf’s interpretation of this Romantic warhorse broke no new ground, but how can one break new ground with such an overplayed classic? On the other hand, there was something slightly less than magical about the Pastoral, and Beethoven’s symphony relies on magic. The combination of a powerful and assertive Beethovian orchestra with lovely, almost pacifist music is at the heart of the Sixth, and therein lies its appeal and uniqueness, along with its program music descriptions of the five movements. Graf’s Sixth was okay, but one believes the Oregon Symphony can do better than just okay.

 Hans Graf conducted the Oregon Symphony.

Hans Graf conducted the Oregon Symphony.

It wasn’t Graf’s tempos that dampened the mystery. At 45 minutes his Pastoral was toward the long side of the recorded spectrum — Herbert von Karajan, Neeme Järvi, Roger Norrington, Bernard Haitink, John Eliot Gardiner, George Szell, and Arturo Toscanini all did it from three to seven minutes faster — but Graf wasn’t in bad company, with Leonard Bernstein, Christian Thielemann, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Otto Klemperer, and Wolfgang Sawaalisch all clocking in at around his speed. And while the Sixth does contain a number of potentially tricky entrances on the upbeat for either all the strings or the entire orchestra, these were not overly noticeable. Rather, after the rigors of the program’s first half, Graf simply seemed less meticulously or physically involved in the conducting: less attentive to detail, more sparing in gesture, vaguer in tempo indications. Then again, perhaps he and the orchestra were simply tired on the third night of performing an exhausting program.

The demands on the performers, and the rewards for the audience, had come abundantly in the first half of the program. Graf conducted Robert Schumann’s mini-symphony Overture, Scherzo, and Finale, written in 1841, as if he’d grown up hearing it in his mother’s womb. A more polished, suave, and effective performance can scarcely be imagined. With brilliant attention to tempo changes, both abrupt and gradual (rubato), Graf seemed to conduct the orchestra players’ every gesture, and they responded with silky, glistening precision. Schumann’s music, not always considered on a par with his some of his longer symphonies (which add a slow movement to this piece’s three), emerged as a resplendent 18-minute showpiece and a more than substantial concert-opener.

It was difficult to imagine how Graf and the Symphony could keep up such a high level, but their fresh rendition of Frank Martin’s Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments, Timpani, Percussion, and String Orchestra was a revelation. The Concerto and Martin’s compositional style in general have been described as a mix of Ravel and Stravinsky, and this seems accurate. In this piece, he sets out to place each of the seven wind instruments in relation to the others and to the symphonic strings, to illustrate some of the many ways the sounds of wind and string compare and contrast. Against a melodic template reminiscent of ravishing Ravel melodies begun and then, in spiky Stravinskian fashion, abandoned in favor of others before they are fully developed, Martin uses his three movements, lasting a total of 22 minutes in Maestro Graf’s performance, to accomplish his goal in three different ways. In the first movement Allegro, each of the seven wind instruments is given its own music. They return in the second movement Adagietto—Misterioso ed elegante in music now peaceful and now violent against a relentless and slow duple-meter tick-tock, which becomes an urgent crescendo before disappearing into a beautifully plaintive solo for trombone. The third movement, a dancelike Allegro vivace, brings in the soloists one at a time, beginning with the flute, and then puts them into lively groups of two or three, with colorful results. A rambunctious timpani solo interrupts the proceedings briefly towards the end.

Monday’s Concerto was an extremely effective performance of a difficult piece, every bit the equal of Graf’s Schumann. Deserving of special mention are Carin Miller Packwood’s explorations of the bassoon from the top to the bottom of its range, Jeffrey Work’s triple-tonguing and otherwise immaculate trumpet work, and Daniel Cloutier’s soulful trombone. The other four soloists — five including Niel de Ponte’s timpani and all drawn from the orchestra — played with verve and accuracy.

But primary kudos must be reserved for Hans Graf for conducting of exemplary taste and involvement. If things lagged a little after the intermission, Beethoven’s invincible monument more than survived the experience, and even earned a partial standing ovation — “Oh yes. Beethoven” — from an audience that did not similarly reward the Schumann or the Martin. Perhaps they will the next time these pieces are programmed and so beautifully played.

Recommended recordings

• Schumann Overture, Scherzo and Finale: Wolfgang Sawallisch conducting the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden (EMI/Warner Classics 522128).

• Martin Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments, Timpani, Percussion, and String Orchestra: Matthias Bamert conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra (Chandos 9283).

• Beethoven Symphony No. 6 in F Major: Bruno Walter conducting the Columbia Symphony Orchestra (Sony Classical 64462); George Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra (Sony 89838).

Terry Ross is a Portland freelance journalist and director of The Classical Club, through which he offers classical music appreciation sessions. He can be reached at classicalclub@comcast.net.

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One Response.

  1. Mick McMickmic says:

    Just FYI, the timpani part on the Martin Concerto was played by Jon Greeney, not Niel de Ponte

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