Oregon Symphony reviews: immigrant songs

Fall concerts include a world premiere theatrical commission and 20th century works by immigrant American composers

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

An orchestra handles like a steamship, where a jazz band (even a big one) handles like a motorboat, and genre-crossing tends to breed monsters as much as angels. What kind of hybrid might the Oregon Symphony Orchestra produce in performing George Gershwin’s jazz-meets-classical  Rhapsody in Blue alongside Arnold Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto and a newly commissioned play-with-orchestra last November?

As it turned out, soloist Kirill Gerstein’s clever two-concerto gambit smoothly navigated the tricky course, chiefly by virtue of his own witty and informed virtuosity (he actually began his career as a jazz pianist). Throughout Rhapsody in Blue, he made a point of emphasizing the most avant-garde, “outside” sounding notes, as if to say “speaking of atonality, you ever notice how edgy this note is?” I’d heard my share of the Rhapsody already this year, but Gerstein’s performance made it fresh for me. Any decent concert pianist can finger their way through the tricky bits, and any hack can hammer out those iconically familiar themes, but it takes a special artist to improvise something completely new in the middle of a revered classic. Gerstein’s choice to solo in an especially outré and swinging way, stretching surreal blues licks all around a steady left hand groove, sounded quite legitimately like the sort of thing I’d expect to hear in one of the old-fashioned jazz clubs that Portland keeps closing. It’s the sort of musical witticism and daring that makes veteran jazz audiences chuckle knowingly over their martinis. I’m not sure how well it went over with the symphony crowd, but I loved it.

Gerstein, Kalmar and the orchestra delivered dynamite Gershwin and Schoenberg. Photo: Leah Nash.

My only real complaint is the usual one: Rhapsody in Blue, again? Gershwin composed his perfectly lovely (and considerably more classical) Concerto in F the following year, and I’d rather have heard that one for the first time than Rhapsody in Blue for the hundredth. To be perfectly frank, at this point Ellington’s version is about all we really need.

Where Gerstein brought out Gershwin’s modernity, he brought out what jazziness he could find latent in the Schoenberg. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what he was doing to make it sound so much more immediate and clubby than, say, Pierre Boulez’s excellent recording with Mitsuko Uchida (or his earlier one with Daniel Barenboim). I dunno, maybe just putting these two on the same program was enough to prime my ear for the connections. Conductor Carlos Kalmar certainly reinforced the relationship in the audience’s mind, joking about Gershwin and Schoenberg’s famous tennis partnership in 1930s Hollywood and reminding us of Gershwin’s early connections to the European avant-garde.

Kalmar also joked, when explaining the unorthodox program order, that we should not leave the premises “after the Schoenberg, nor before the Schoenberg, nor during the Schoenberg.” It’s a pretty audacious move putting Big Bad Schoenberg on any program, and although the OSO and their audience are pretty open minded, the Godfather of Horror Music ranks pretty high on the list of Forbidden Composers. The presence of Gershwin—and the stirring, heartfelt performance of the Prokofiev concert opener—smoothed all that over, recontextualized the music as different sides of a story about American immigrants, and made it all considerably more palatable. Hell, I like Schoenberg a lot and this was probably my favorite live performance of his music to date.

The first half’s other big star was the OSO brass section, who shone on both the concerti and throughout the concert. I’ve been increasingly impressed with their sound this season, majestic and bombastic when called upon but also sweet and profound as only the finest brass players can achieve.

Orchestral Theater

In keeping with the OSO’s Sounds of Home immigration theme, the concert opened with Sergei Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes and closed with more genre-crossing: the Chris Rogerson/Dipika Guha commission Azaan. Apart from the basic thematic connection (refugees, immigration, melting pot), the second half felt like an entirely different show; the play-with-orchestra was different enough that it felt like a double feature. That’s no bad thing, of course, and you could argue that such diversity of medium and genre fits into the immigration theme. As for the play itself—well, to be honest I had to warm up to it.

Setting narrative words to music is tricky work, confounding even the best composers, and I’m not sure I agreed with all of Rogerson’s choices. By contrast to the engaging cantabile I heard in his Thirty Thousand Days at CMNW this summer, Azaan existed in a relatively amelodic, textural, theatrical sound world that was surely meant to be unobtrusive but veered all too often toward the meandering, a shortcoming that likewise marked Justin Ralls’ otherwise excellent Two Yosemites in September. Puccini, this was not.

Chris Rogerson at Chamber Music Northwest in 2015. Photo: Lisa Wang.

As with Two Yosemites, though, what Azaan lacked in overt tunefulness was balanced by serious attention to the story’s emotional drive—sequences of chords shifting and morphing, lying dormant during quiet moments, swelling at points of conflict and revelation, periodically resolving to bittersweet climax and repose before descending back into quiet desperation. In other words, it was a lot like good film music of a certain variety, the atmospheric type which underpins moody small-scale dramas like Brick, Crash, Lady Bird, etc. It’s a real privilege for Rogerson to do what so many film composers dream of: getting an entire orchestra of OSO’s caliber to perform this exquisitely non-motoric music. And although Rogerson’s score was certainly quite different from Glass’ music for Dracula, it was no less effective as dramatic underscore.

As a collaborative gesamtkunstwerk, Azaan did please me, but my usual obsessively universalist appreciation-of-everything mindset was challenged at times. Actors speaking dialogue on stage with orchestra is one thing when it’s, say, Persephone, all grandeur and hypersurrealism (and subtitles). But no, Azaan’s theatrical voice is much more subdued and naturalistic: a handful of actors playing regular people exchanging realistic dialogue on everyday subjects (albeit very dramatic ones).

It was the sort of play which, minus the orchestra, would have seemed more at home in a black box theater like CoHo or Imago (or even a non-traditional theater space like N.E.W. or Performance Works NW). To place such quotidian drama on the grand Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall stage is certainly in keeping with the proletarian, Federal Theatre Project mood of our socio-historical moment (especially in Portland), but I’m not so sure it really worked all that well. The acting was solid, the characters and dialogue were well-drawn and engaging, the story had a nice mini-mystery and a satisfying conclusion, but the elements struggled to come together in a compelling way. Now, I’m a bigger fan than most of the hokey, sentimental, “be kind to strangers” vibe of real-world parables like Guha’s, but at times it all felt a little too much like watching a Hallmark special on TV with a stereo in the other room tuned to All Classical playing John Luther Adams.

All that changed with the hot air balloon. In a moment of Gilliamesque whimsy, at the play’s climax Bernard White’s Stranger climbs into a hot air balloon to return home. Off to the side of the stage, a model hot air balloon rises over the audience to the ceiling, lit by a solitary spotlight. The moment was so earnestly ridiculous, so over-the-top cheesy, so abundantly Waiting for Guffman, that I couldn’t help grinning with delight. This, I thought, saves the whole show; the entire last hour has been leading to this moment. All the foregoing theatre verite was just a setup for this slice of magical realism, a gesture from and to another world, a connection to something unabashedly corny and homespun and weird and, above all, human.

Babak Tafti as Nasser in the Oregon Symphony’s world premiere performance of Dipika Guha’s ‘Azaan.’ Photo: Leah Nash.

“I believe that the real power of theatre is that it can teach empathy,” according to staging director (and prior Guha collaborator) Elena Araoz. “I am hoping that the audience can come away with some small understanding of the immigrant and refugee experience.” Above criticisms aside, I think they achieved their goal. In the end, the characters’ shared pain is lessened, they learn from their mistakes, they experience the joy of giving and receiving compassion. When they ask the Grail question—“What ails you, friend?”—we ask it with them.

To stage a commission of this nature (the first time an American orchestra has done so, and the second time ever) is to take an enormous risk. I’m so glad they did, and I hope they’ll keep doing it.

Orchestral Jests

OSO’s next big concert two weeks later was far more conventional, far less weighted with meaning and substance, and that made it both more fun and less compelling. The usual program order (overture-concerto-intermission-symphony) was inverted to bring out the connections between John Adams’ concerto for string quartet and orchestra, Absolute Jest, and the music of Ludwig van Beethoven. Why they chose Beethoven’s Second Symphony is a mystery to me; perhaps it was simply an opportunity to highlight one of the maestro’s lesser masterpieces, or maybe it was guest conductor Johannes Debus’ choice. There are probably quotes from it somewhere in Absolute Jest, but if so I’m not quite musically literate enough to have caught them. Anyways, the OSO nailed it, and it’s a lovely symphony, so no complaints there; moreover, in this case putting the old symphony before the new concerto somewhat alleviates the sting of having to, in Adams’ words, “share the bed with one of the large guys.”

One thing I did like about the order: stretching my legs with Beethoven ringing in my ears before sitting back down for a brilliant (and super helpful) lecture/demonstration by the St. Lawrence String Quartet. Adams delved into the “repertoire black hole” on this group’s behalf, and they did a wonderful job showing the audience which bits of Beethoven’s music Adams stole. Most of it was from the later string quartets, and St. Lawrence ran us through quick, stirring renditions of the scherzo themes from opp. 131 and 135 that form the backbone of Absolute Jest. Our ears primed, we heard what the composer wanted us to. OSO seems to do this semi-regularly, or they used to, and as much I do enjoy that whole Pompous Taciturn Classical Concert Mystique vibe (which normally relegates such pedagogical outreach to pre-concert discussions), I’d love to hear more groups do this sort of thing as part of the concert.

“Jest” in Adams’s hands means more than just riffing on a couple of Beethoven themes or sprinkling dozens of “winks” throughout the piece, megamix style. No, this was Adams the postmodernist inventor at his finest, building his own work on Beethoven’s foundations, developing the primary themes through all manner of distinctly Adams counterpoint and thematic transformations, creating some of his most engaging work since Harmonielehre. All this in a sea of Beethoven: the Ninth’s irrepressible scherzo ostinato hopping around under everything but never breaking free, multiple fugal references giving way to Waldstein harmonies, scores of Easter eggs hiding more profound appropriations, everything woven together in what we might call Adams’ late-period style. As if all that weren’t enough, we even got to hear a set of mean-intoned instruments (piano, harp, and cowbells) sounding out their not-quite-commensurate tones and functioning like a “consort in the medieval sense.”

“Exhilarating” barely begins to cover it. And ultimately I  have to disagree with Adams’ feelings about the degree of musical literacy required of the audience: I think you could just sit and listen to all this with no context and love it all on its own merits.

The concert closer, Paul Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber (one of the only Hindemith pieces I really like), might have served better as an overture, length notwithstanding, though I appreciated being sent out humming all those catchy tunes (and oh my, those OSO brass masters again). I find Hindemith is at his best when he gets out of his own head and writes more accessible music, and the OSO did a wonderful job with Hindemith’s colorful, jazzy, oh-so-American metamorphoses. Here we had an informal close to the earlier immigrant theme: Hindemith, like Schoenberg, fled Germany’s Nazis and found 1930s USA a much more welcoming environment. May we all continue to find it so.

Oregon Symphony has a handful of special concerts coming right up. On January 13-15, Haydn‘s Symphony No. 70 and Bartok‘s Violin Concerto No. 2 bump elbows with Stravinsky’s oft-performed Rite of Spring in the next installment of OSO’s Sounds of Home series, this time exploring environmental themes with a video presentation by multimedia designer Matthew Haber. A live rendition of Pirates of the Caribbean music and another performance of Brahms’ First (hold the Radiohead, add a bit of Detlev Glanert and a Mozart violin concerto) round out the month.

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, singer, percussionist, and editor at Portland State University, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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