Oregon Symphony review: Ode to Joy

The Oregon Symphony's Ode to Joy concert. Photo: Joe Cantrell.

The Oregon Symphony’s Ode to Joy concert. Photo: Joe Cantrell.

by KATIE TAYLOR

At the beginning of the evening, everyone’s eyes were riveted on the big nets full of balloons suspended from the ceiling over the orchestra seats. Colorful and festive, the balloons set the tone for the Oregon Symphony’s new year’s eve offering, Ode to Joy: A Holiday Spectacular — and when at the end of the evening they were finally cut loose, they received their very own round of applause.

Ode to Joy was a year-end party for the orchestra’s supporters and community, and on those grounds, it succeeded brilliantly. Mayor Hales and his wife were there, along with two past governors who shamelessly took to the stage, and the Timbers mascot, who put in an appearance to sing “Auld Lang Syne” and pop balloons with his chainsaw.

Thanks to the symphony’s master of ceremonies, Pink Martini’s Thomas Lauderdale, the program abounded in special guest stars. Lauderdale curated a first half of the evening that was fun, well paced engaging and clever, dominated by the usual suspects but including a few fresh faces.

The evening began with a kickass rendition of John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever,” featuring a guest appearance by the 234th Army Band of the Oregon National Guard. Usually associated with Independence Day, Sousa’s patriotic firecracker was actually first lit on Christmas Day 1896. When the piccolo section from the Army Band rose for the final descant with its treacherous leaps and trills, the audience broke out in howls and applause.

On the night I attended (December 30), this was followed by the ubiquitous Storm Large singing a version of “The Lady is a Tramp” in which the lyrics had been Portlandized. The local cliches made me cringe in my chair a little, but Portlanders do enjoy hearing inside jokes about their hometown set to music, and this audience was no exception. Large was in great voice and gave a typically energetic and crowd-pleasing performance.

The dreaded Portlandization cropped up again later in the program with a version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” with words by former Oregon First Lady Mary Oberst. This number was sung (and danced!) by former Oregon Governors Barbara Roberts and Ted Kulongoski and LGBT activist Terry Bean. I was impressed that the three of them had largely memorized all those lyrics — they must have had a blast preparing for this. The clever arrangement by Portland-based jazz artist and composer John Nastos included some entertaining musical jokes, like an officious trumpet voluntary at the mention of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It lasted too long, but the audience didn’t seem to mind.

Equally crowd pleasing was a turn by filmmaker Gus Van Sant, who played guitar and sang “Moon River” in a plaintive and likable amateur voice backed by the orchestra. I really wanted to like this, and again, I applaud the programming choice because it beautifully served the purpose of making the audience feel engaged with their orchestra and their city (even I have felt smug most of my life that Van Sant lives in my home town) — but I was a little too conscious of my heartstrings being pulled to really enjoy it. For the audience, however, I think it was probably the most affecting moment of the entire evening.

The first half also included performances by Pink Martini singer China Forbes, Portland cantor Ida Rae Cahana and, of course, Lauderdale, who manned the keys with his usual virtuosity — but the high point was the appearance by the Von Trapps, great grandchildren of the “Sound of Music” family, who recently relocated to Portland from Montana on Lauderdale’s invitation. The singers, three sisters and a brother, all in their twenties, are in the midst of recording an album with Lauderdale’s band, so he started them out with something very Pink Martini: a version of Francesco and Maria Pagano’s “Black Cat Tango” with the lyrics translated into Japanese. It was a poor fit, leaving me with a first impression of the Von Trapps as cute and wholesome and about as noteworthy as a good high school vocal ensemble.

Fortunately, Lauderdale had them follow this up with a remarkably fresh and highly unusual a cappella number written by the youngest brother, August. “Storm” truly sounded like the wild winds and wilderness, with exquisite coordination among the four singers and sweeping lines that sounded as spontaneous as birdsong. The unconventional yodeling solo at the beginning of the number by August Von Trapp could have misfired, but it was peculiarly gorgeous, only adding to the song’s unstudied-sounding originality.

A few numbers sounded a little recycled and tired, including the Barbra/Judy “Get Happy/Happy Days Are Here Again” sung by China Forbes and Storm Large that wrapped up the first half, reinforcing the general impression that the priority was to stir the crowd with the beloved and familiar.

After intermission, the symphony reprised its February performances of Beethoven’s  Symphony #9. The Ninth might have fared better as the first half of the concert, or it may just have been a complete mismatch. It’s difficult for an audience to go from a fast-paced and laughter-inducing pops performance full of variety and razzle dazzle to a Beethoven symphony that people tend to forget has three long movements before the big choral finale. However, the crowd listened intently, reserving their coughing for the breaks between movements and rising for the obligatory Portland standing ovation after the thundering close of the fourth movement.

The symphony was played with jewel-like precision under the baton of Maestro Carlos Kalmar. His approach to this work was a little more dynamically subdued than I am used to hearing, which really brought out the luster of the interplay between the winds and lower strings in the third movement but made the vigorous fourth movement sound a little restrained to my ear. Principal oboe Martin Hebert turned in some exquisite soli in a third movement liberally gemmed with lovely feature turns from principal wind and brass players.

The solo singers were an odd assortment. Local operatic favorites mezzo Angela Niederloh and baritone Richard Zeller were both in typically great voice and well matched. Tenor Carl Moe, a promising Portland State University student, spun out a fresh light lyric tone that was out of scale with Niederloh’s and Zeller’s but easy and lovely. Soprano Janeanne Houston sang ably but with a perceptible wobble and a pinched upper register. The overall quality of her voice was no match for Niederloh, Zeller and Moe.

The gigantic chorus, which included Portland State University Chamber Choir, Man Choir and Vox Femina; the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus; and Pacific Youth Choir sang a little sloppily but with great zeal and produced a big, rousing sound.

The encore made me laugh out loud with delight — a version of “Auld Lang Syne,” with maracas! And an army band! And balloons! All of the evening’s performers came out on stage and sang their hearts out, and despite my jaded and curmudgeonly nature, I clapped just as hard as everybody else, proud of my city’s symphony and all of its talented friends.

The hope (my hope) would be that party pieces like this concert raise the support and the money to foster the less popular offerings on the calendar — the ones that might have great artistic merit but no balloons. On New Year’s Eve (and the night before), however, I wouldn’t have missed those balloons for the world.

Katie Taylor is a Portland-based writer, opera singer, director and librettist. An alumna of San Francisco Opera Center, she is the former general director of Opera Theater Oregon.

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