oregon symphony

ArtsWatch Weekly: let’s start over

A new year, a fresh start: Oregon gets set for a cultural revival in January and 2017

We’ve got that nasty old 2016 in our rear-view mirror now, and as our newest Nobel Laureate for Literature once warbled, Don’t look back. Nothing to see there. Or too much to contemplate. Sure, sure: what happens in 2017 will build on what happened in 2016, which built on what happened in 2015, and on and on down the line. But right now, let’s look ahead.


TRADITIONALLY, JANUARY IS IN THE MIDDLE of the artistic season and also the beginning of what’s called “The Second Season” – a chance to buckle down after the holidays and reinvigorate. Here are a few things, big and small, coming up this month to keep your eye on:

Kara Walker (American, born 1969), “The Emancipation Approximation (Scene 18),” 1999–2000, courtesy the artist. Part of “Constructing Identity” opening Jan. 28 at the Portland Art Museum.

Fertile Ground 2017. This is one of the biggies, made up of all sorts of “smalls.” Begun as an annual festival in 2009, it’s blossomed into one of the biggest, most sprawling, and most intriguingly unpredictable events on Portland’s cultural calendar. For eleven days, in venues scattered across the city, dozens of new performance works by Portland artists will take the stage: plays, dances, solo shows, puppet shows, interactive shows, musicals, more. Shows will range from the biggest companies to indie pop-ups, and from full-blown world premieres to workshops and readings. Trying to keep up is bound to leave you breathless. Jan. 19-29.


‘Turangalila’ gang-review: Illumination from many angles

ArtsWatch music writers and guest reviewers gang up on Oregon Symphony multimedia performance of Messiaen's mega-symphony


Photos by Jacob Wade

Editor’s note: a composition as ambitious, ginormous, and multifarious as Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalilla symphony demands more than a single journalistic response. ArtsWatch asked several of our stalwart music writers to weigh in on the Oregon Symphony’s December performances of the French modernist mystic’s mighty 1948 megalomusical creation. Two of those writers were laid low by travel difficulties and illness, but three survived to tell the tale, and we roped in a couple of distinguished guests to substitute for the missing mavens.

A Tapestry of Interwoven Polysensory Delight

The big trouble with this concert is that now I want every orchestra concert to be like this. Won’t Beethoven’s majestic old Ninth seem a little empty without animation projected on the walls? Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with no visuals? Unthinkable! We demand light shows at every concert.

The animation itself was deliciously surreal. Giant slabs of color rise up over the orchestra like ancient transdimensional beings out of an Edgar Rice Burroughs space opera; abstract lines and squiggly polygons play against the classical curves of the Schnitz‘s Renaissance balconies and plaster spandrels; nuts and bolts and screws dance an uncanny conga-line up the balustrades; and a sullen grey patch of dark clouds projected on the proscenium arch glooms periodically down on us like the cataracted eyeball of God.


ArtsWatch Weekly: Revel without a Claus

Commedia Christmas, O'Connor & Ives, Nutcracker, Imago's new Belle, Milagro's Posada, more "Messiah," Kurosawa Dreams, and more

This year’s dragon, not red as in the picture here from 2014 but a bright scaly green, was sitting in a little storage corner outside Portland Revels’ offices in the Artists Repertory Theatre creative hub one day last week, waiting patiently for assembly. It was in two pieces: a hind portion stretched over a large backpack, with room for levers, and a gangly top, again with movable parts, which when occupied by puppeteer Shuhe Hawkins will stretch giraffe-like perhaps 12 or 15 feet above the stage. It is a lovely creature all in all, and that fabled dragon-slayer St. George really ought to be ashamed.

Taggin’ with the dragon, in the 2014 Revels. Portland Revels photo

It’s Revels time again – this year’s Christmas Revels runs for eight performances Friday through December 21 at St. Mary’s Academy downtown – and for Bruce Hostetler, newly settled in as artistic director after about five years of working with and directing the annual winter solstice show, that means settling into the hundreds of details at hand while he’s also thinking about bigger things. If you don’t know about Revels – which is in its 22nd year in Portland, and began in 1975 in Cambridge, Massachusetts – it’s a grand and genuinely family get-together of singing, dancing, storytelling, mumming, and playing old-time instruments that is rooted in Celtic customs but regularly roams the earth, making connections with other cultures’ solstice traditions. Santa Claus? That’s somebody else’s tale.


Oregon Symphony review: French feast

Pianist Stephen Hough’s breathtaking performance of  Saint-Saëns’s final concerto highlights the orchestra’s Francophilic program


It was an all-French program, and accordingly three French stars were assembled. Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) was on hand with La Valse (Waltz). Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) was at the concert’s center with his Concerto No. 5 in F Major for Piano and Orchestra, “Egyptian.” And conductor Ludovic Morlot, born in Lyon in 1973, came on loan from the Seattle Symphony, where he has been music director since 2011. But the true star of the Oregon Symphony’s November 21 performance was from England: the acclaimed pianist Stephen Hough, whose playing of Saint-Saëns’s concerto was breathtaking.

Two other Frenchmen, Ernest Chausson (1855-1899) and Claude Debussy (1862-1918), also made their contributions. Maestro Morlot chose Debussy’s “Cortége et air de danse” from his youthful cantata L’enfant prodigue (The Prodigal Son) as his program opener. Not in any way “modern” for its time, the charming five-minute miniature, at least gave an idea of where Debussy came from before he became the revolutionary composer of his later years.

Stephen Hough performed with the Oregon Symphony. Photo: Hiroyuki Ito.

Stephen Hough performed with the Oregon Symphony. Photo: Hiroyuki Ito.

Chausson’s 1891 Symphony in B-flat Major, on the other hand, which closed the first half, was more substantial, at least in length (34 minutes) and fullness of orchestration — though not in its musical content. Throughout its three movements, the symphony more or less constantly introduced new musical fragments that never coalesced into melodies. The effect was of things begun but then abandoned even before they had had time to become interesting. Although Chausson re-introduced some of the melodic material from the first movement toward the end of the third, apparently in an effort to “conclude,” it was far too little, far too late. Maestro Morlot and the Oregon Symphony did their best, leaning heavily on Chausson’s almost interesting orchestral colors, but the piece is a non-starter, notable chiefly for its composer’s championing of Richard Wagner’s musical language, with its reluctance to arrive at codas, not otherwise common in France at the time.


OOPS. HERE IT IS A WEEK into December, and you’ve still got that shopping stuff to do. You sort of thought this would be the year you bought local – you know, support the place you live in sort of thing – but it’s all a bit confusing, and you’re really not sure where to start.

Hannah Wells 8 x 8-inch artwork in “The Big 500.”

So let us introduce you to The Big 500, an all-local, all-art, low-cost and accessible event produced by “people’s artists” Chris Haberman and Jason Brown and sprawling across the Ford Gallery in the Ford Building, 2505 Southeast 11th Avenue. Now in its ninth year, The Big 500 is actually more than that – 500+ Portland area artists, each creating 8 x 8 inch pieces on wood panels, each piece for sale for $40. More than 5,000 works will be on hand, and besides putting some cash in local artists’ pockets, the event raises money for the Oregon Food Bank, which can put it to extremely good use.

The sale kicks off at 2 p.m. Saturday and continues through December 23. It’s a pretty wild scene, with all sorts of stuff at all sorts of levels of accomplishment, and it’s more than a bit of a crap shoot: you might walk in and find ten pieces you absolutely must have for the people on your list, or you might strike out. Either way, the sheer volume of objects is pretty amazing. And what you spend here stays here. You’re welcome.


Oregon Symphony ‘SoundSight’ series: Music to our eyes

This weekend's production of Olivier Messiaen's 'Turangalila' symphony features complementary video projections

For centuries, orchestras have been expensive vehicles for presenting sophisticated symphonic sounds. But as non-classical shows have added visual elements from projections to smoke to colorful lighting, even classical music audiences increasingly expect to see something onstage besides tuxedoed musicians staring at music stands and sawing away on their strings. This weekend’s Oregon Symphony program shows the orchestra committing to appealing to its audience’s eyes as well as ears.

The orchestra’s performance of 20th-century French composer Olivier Messiaen’s massive Turangalila symphony features video art by Rose Bond, an animator and media artist at Pacific Northwest College of Art. The concert is the second in this season’s new SoundSight series, part of Oregon Symphony President Scott Showalter’s effort to venture beyond standard repertory.

The Oregon Symphony's "Turangalila" will include projections created by Portland video artist Rose Bond.

The Oregon Symphony’s “Turangalila” will include projections created by Portland video artist Rose Bond.

“It’s not enough anymore to have cookie-cutter programs with an overture, concerto with guest artist, then a symphony on the second half,” Showalter says. He aims to both broaden (with the recent upsurge in concerts featuring pop stars from various generations to live performances with video game and film soundtracks) and deepen (with seldom performed classical works) the symphony’s programming.

With the SoundSight series, “we asked, ‘How can we reimagine core symphonic works in a way that advances the composer’s vision,” using visual arts. Showalter says. “It’s not just a gimmick.”


Oregon Symphony review: Making and missing the magic

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


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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