oregon symphony

Oregon Symphony review: Gerhardt or Mahler? It’s a draw.

German cellist and Austrian composer highlight orchestra performances.


Virtuosos and Mahler symphonies draw classical music lovers in droves, and have been known to seduce more than a few newbies as well. The Oregon Symphony has repeatedly proved its mettle with the music of Gustav Mahler over the last several years, so I wasn’t surprised to see Portland’s 2,700-seat Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall full for the second performance of his Symphony #5 last month. Not only that, director Carlos Kalmar opened with Josef Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C, an inspired choice for a tricky programming decision – distinctive and weighty enough to stand up to Mahler’s technicolor extravaganza without competing directly – and a fine sendoff for the OSO’s Artist in Residence, internationally renowned cellist Alban Gerhardt, in the final year of his three-year residency.

It would be hard to say whether Gerhardt or Mahler brought in more fans, but either way, at such times, rumors of the death of classical music seem wildly exaggerated.

Why might the draw have been mostly Gerhardt? He had just finished up with a round of free outreach concerts in venues throughout the metro area, including schools. He plays with the fire and passion that win hearts all around, not just from classical audiences, and he has technique to burn too – if you couldn’t see the stage during his cadenzas (the flashy improvisations concerto soloists typically get to indulge in before the orchestra finishes off a movement), you might have thought there were two of him up there. At the same time, he never let technique hold him back – more than once he charged up a scale so fast his intonation veered off slightly, like a high-wire artist amping up drama by pretending the wire is slippery. We never really know whether it’s pretending or not, but we don’t look – or listen – away for a moment, and that’s what we come for.

Alban Gerhardt played Haydn with the Oregon Symphony.

Alban Gerhardt played Haydn with the Oregon Symphony.

That kind of excitement was needed in this early Haydn work, written in the 1760s during the first few years of what would become lifelong service to the illustrious Esterházy family of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Haydn wisely sought advice from the family’s resident cellist, the young Josef Franz Weigl, who seems, naturally enough, to have encouraged the composer to create a dramatic and showy solo part. In Gerhardt’s hands, it carried a work which, though well crafted as we expect from Haydn, shows little of the colorful and fanciful musical personality that would become a trademark of his mature years.

Why might the draw have been mostly Mahler? Classical music hardly knows a more colorful or fanciful musical personality. A few years after he finished his fifth symphony in 1902, he famously said to the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, “A symphony must be like the world. It must encompass everything.” Audiences of the time, just over a century ago, were bewildered by these epic creations, crafted with such love both for the endless sonic possibilities of a large orchestra and the world of experience that inspired him to explore them. This symphony lasts well over an hour; several stretch nearly an hour and a half. But audiences in our own time take such lengths in stride, in no small part because of famed New York Philharmonic director Leonard Bernstein’s tireless advocacy and colorful interpretations during the latter part of the 20th century. With seemingly endless variety of sound and mood, and fistfuls of dramatic contrasts, they are nothing less than classical music’s cinematic blockbusters.

Carlos Kalmar led the OSO's performances. Photo: Leah Nash.

Carlos Kalmar led the OSO’s performances. Photo: Leah Nash.

Adding to the cinematic nature of this particular symphony, the narrative is a classic one, starting in defeat and depression, then working through rage and despair back to engagement with the wider world, resulting ultimately in love and celebration of life. And it’s love with movie trimmings: not only was the quiet, slow Adagietto movement, the fourth of five, written as a love letter to the woman who would eventually become Mahler’s wife, but movie buffs and folks of a certain age also know it better as the source of the theme music for Luchino Visconti’s 1971 film Death in Venice.

Exploiting sonic possibilities inevitably leads to challenges for musicians, and a fine performance of a Mahler symphony is a monster achievement for a symphony orchestra. Kalmar made them a priority from his first season, and though I was skeptical at first, based on valiant but flawed previous OSO attempts, he shortly had the band turning out well-focused, emotionally compelling renditions. By now they’ve done nearly all the symphonies and they’re beginning to be old hands at it. This performance sounded like they were even able to relax and enjoy themselves, though that may well have been an artfully constructed illusion.

Oregon Symphony principal French horn player John Cox

Oregon Symphony principal French horn player John Cox.

Certainly it’s hard to imagine that principal trumpet Jeffrey Work and principal horn John Cox had much opportunity to relax in the days before performing their marathon parts. For example, the entire musical saga opens with a long trumpet solo, among the most challenging in the repertory, completely unaccompanied by any other sound from the many musicians massed on stage. Work delivered brilliantly, charging the first movement with electricity despite its funereal character. He let out a tiny blip a few entrances later – I think one has to, or the tension would be unbearable, like a pitcher throwing a no-hitter. Moreover, Mahler doesn’t keep to the usual fanfares, climaxes and other traditional trumpet material; he also writes real melodies, ghostly asides and more, just like parts for the winds and strings. Trumpeter Work continued flawless and expressive throughout, and the rest of the section ably followed his lead. He well deserved his solo bow at the end and the noisy ovation in response, as did Cox, who may not have had as many flashy solos but was a rock too. Principal horn in late 19th / early 20th century symphonic music is arguably the hardest job in the orchestra, possibly because composers and players both were still getting used to the virtuosity made possible by valve technology that was still new at the time.

OSO trumpet titan Jeff Work.

OSO trumpet titan Jeff Work.

These were the only two players Kalmar recognized for individual bows. But the rest of the band was right up there with them, with solos and flourishes too many to detail, not to mention the ever-present sensitivity to the rest of the ensemble that is essential in Mahler. There are even expressive solos for tuba, an instrument usually relegated to humorous outbursts and rhythmic emphasis, and tubist Ja’Ttik Clark shone in them. The crowd applauded boisterously, and it took an extra curtain call after the traditional three to satisfy them. A composer colleague thought the orchestra sounded even better under Kalmar’s detailed and energetic direction than the San Francisco Symphony, doing the same work under Mahler expert Michael Tilson Thomas, when he heard them a few years back. It was a concert that will leave a warm glow in my heart for a long time.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland pianist and composer, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers.  He’s been crazy for the music of Mahler ever since he was 13, when he first heard a Bernstein / NY Philharmonic recording of the 9th Symphony.

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Weekend Concert Wrap-up: Jazz Infiltrations

Jazz turned up in unlikely places last weekend in Portland.

“Jazz isn’t dead, it just smells funny.”

— Frank Zappa

Jazz is alleged to be a dying art form, but last weekend in Portland, traces of jazz kept turning up in the oddest places: a theater, a symphony concert, even an Indian music performance. As performances by Portland State University Orchestra and Oregon Symphony, David Ornette Cherry and some of Portland’s finest jazzers, and Yashila demonstrated, this supposedly endangered music exerted a powerful and often positive influence far beyond its home base in small clubs, and its creative, rebel spirit still prevails in other 21st century music.

Notes from the Underground

New York’s subway system has long inspired composers, most famously in Billy Strayhorn’s 1941 classic “Take the A Train,” for Duke Ellington’s band. The latest jazzer to derive some notes from the underground: Portland State University professor George Colligan, a recent NYC transplant whose new Existence drew some inspiration from the image of a crowded New York subway station. Colligan wrote out all the melodies and harmonies, but at its premiere at the PSU Orchestra’s Halloween concert, playing trumpet instead of his usual keyboards or drums, he led the student musicians to the Improv Avenue stop part way through the piece, producing a sweet tension over the steady beat, maybe reflecting the rich, occasionally chaotic urban cross currents that await when you disembark.

Norman Sylvester played bluesy guitar in David Ornette Cherry's Organic Nation Listening Party.

Norman Sylvester played bluesy guitar in David Ornette Cherry’s Organic Nation Listening Party.

Along with music by both famous Gabrielis, Ravel’s gorgeous Mother Goose ballet music, which the orchestra will perform with the Portland Ballet later this month, the concert also sported yet another new composition by a PSU faculty member inspired by New York bustle: a “preliminary sketch” of conductor Ken Selden’s Scandal in the Deep, composed to a ballet scenario by the French poet Celine, in which the Roman god of the sea, Neptune, is involved in a scandalous love affair with a mermaid. The students played only a skeletal version of a small portion of this work in progress, so I’m reluctant draw any conclusions about it now, but the unexpected, tantalizing taste of what I did hear makes me eager for the rest.


Oregon Symphony & Ben Folds review: The Show Must Go On

Pop pianist shows classical music how to rock audiences.


“While y’all were in your practice rooms practicing eight hours a day,” Ben Folds told the Oregon Symphony on stage at Schnitzer Hall September 20, “the rest of us were out getting laid.”

Best known as a pop pianist and singer-songwriter, Folds sits on the board of the Nashville Symphony. He’s touring a piano concerto he wrote. And he seems to thrive when thrown to the lions . . . . conservatory musicians behind him, a hungry mob in front. He’s a showman on the order of Leonard Bernstein. Eyes rolled when I recently blurted this to a friend who thinks no one will ever match Lenny. He’s right. Folds supersedes him. Only because times have changed and Folds is hipper than thee and me and he takes no prisoners.

Ben Folds rose to the occasion with the Oregon Symphony.

Ben Folds rose to the occasion with the Oregon Symphony.

Folds is obviously not intimidated by the musicians’ pedigrees, displaying his gushing wry affection for them and their prowess, but he also understands that the music itself can still appeal to much bigger than the narrow “classical” audience — if only it’s presented in a way that reaches out to 21st century audiences. As he showed last month in Portland with his piano concerto and his electric connection to listeners, Ben Folds is the perfect evangelist for symphony orchestras, nay, all of classical music.


Summer music survey part 4: Younger Than Yesterday

Oregon Symphony brings music from today's pop musicians to the concert hall.

Over the past week, we’ve been reviewing summer concerts that sparkled with the promise of renewal. Some of them involved young — even very young! — musicians. But even some of the state’s old-line classical institutions are beginning to seek new audiences. The Oregon Symphony, like other American orchestras, has for the last few years been updating the old idea of the pops concert, once reserved for the Lawrence Welk crowd. Now it’s the baby boomers instead of the 1940s and ‘50s generations whose pop music invades orchestra programs. Often, these have amounted to little but bloated, simplistic inflations of rock band hits for orchestras, but in the last weeks of the summer, the Oregon Symphony presented three different concerts featuring not just the hits but also original music written for orchestra by musicians who made their reputations in non classical settings. (The orchestra also brought back pop singer Brandi Carlile, but that concert announcement didn’t include original works for orchestra.)

Carlos Kalmar congratulates Bela Fleck after performing his music with the Oregon Symphony.

Carlos Kalmar congratulates Bela Fleck after performing his music with the Oregon Symphony.

Unfortunately, I missed OSO’s performance of Phish head Trey Anastasio’s Petrichor (which refers to the scent produced after the first rain in a long time); by all accounts, the audience gave the piece, and the orchestra, fervent shouting ovations. We’ll have more to say about Ben Folds’s surprising early September show soon, but for now, I’ll just note that the feisty third movement of his piano concerto deserves more performances, and not just featuring the composer, who I hope will continue to explore composing for “classical” forces.

At that concert and the preceding week’s Bela Fleck’s guest appearance, the audience seemed to average a full generation younger than usual at the OSO; we’ve asked the symphony to provide us whatever demographic and attendance information it can at the end of the season, but the applause between movements of the banjo virtuoso’s concerto suggested that many were new to the preposterous rituals of classical music. The musicians got into the spirit by shucking the tuxes in favor of what we called “new music black” back in the day — informal black tops and bottoms.

All, that is, except for music director Carlos Kalmar, who strode to the podium resplendent in a blindingly pink shirt that threatened to spontaneously combust, and launched the orchestra into an equally flammable performance of everyone’s favorite (next to maybe Mozart’s Figaro) overture, the stirring kickoff Leonard Bernstein wrote for his operetta Candide, which deserved the raucous woo-hoos and claps it elicited from a crowd (including a dude in a ten gallon hat — first time I’ve seen one of those at an Oregon Symphony concert) that was probably there to hear Bela. The rollicking overture and the rest of the program was brilliantly designed to show any symphony novices the melodic and rhythmic power of some of the best American music, and to place Fleck’s orchestral works in that tradition. The orchestra was smokin’, the house was rockin’, the audience was cheering …


The Oregon Symphony board and musicians agree on a contract

After a dicey negotiation, board and musicians extend the current contract

Well THAT was an anti-climax! I’m talking about the extension of the Oregon Symphony musicians contract for one year at its current level, engineered by new President and CEO Scott Showalter soon after he hit town in July. Of course, in this case, a nice subdued anti-climax is probably the best possible outcome, though for journalists prepared to hit the mattresses for an all-out, rock ‘em-sock ‘em labor battle…well, even for us it was a relief.

“The congenial relationship that exists among the Oregon Symphony family is impressive and bodes well for our collective future,” Showalter said in the press release, announcing the deal.  “I appreciate the eagerness of the musicians and the union to bring these negotiations to a quick and positive conclusion. With this agreement in place we can focus on building relationships that will ensure the Symphony’s future.”


The musicians and board of the Oregon Symphony have reached an agreement on a new contract.

The musicians and board of the Oregon Symphony have reached an agreement on a new contract.

As we’ve written, the relationship hasn’t been all that congenial, really, and the specter of a lockout by the board seemed very possible late last fall and early winter, given the severity of the cuts we heard proposed. At least three things happened to help preserve the peace: 1) the musicians pitched in with some creative ideas for attacking a looming deficit with a series of popular concerts and an increased commitment to audience outreach and education, 2) the board, seeing the engagement of the musicians, kept the faction of “disciplinarians” who wanted to cut salaries drastically at bay, and 3) Showalter built on that hard work and community formation to reach a deal that didn’t involve salary cuts at all.


The new CEO hire at the symphony might keep the Cutters at bay

Interpreting what the hiring of Scott Showalter by the Oregon Symphony means

The Oregon Symphony has a new President and CEO—Scott Showalter.

The Oregon Symphony has a new President and CEO—Scott Showalter.

The news arrived yesterday that the Oregon Symphony had hired Scott Showalter from the Los Angeles Philharmonic as its new president and chief executive officer.

Showalter comes from the fundraising side of things at the LA Philharmonic, where he was vice president for development and supervised a staff of 25, so the immediate conclusion was that the symphony had landed an ace money wrangler who could do some donor-whispering tricks to corral more cash in the arts fundraising badlands of Oregon. In the lead of his story about the hire, The Oregonian’s David Stabler called Showalter a “heavy-hitting fundraiser,” for example. (Didn’t he get the memo that we were using Western metaphors, not baseball or boxing terms?)

A better way to think of this hire, though, is in the context of the battle going on at nearly every symphony in the country, the battle between Cutters and Re-inventors. At the Oregon Symphony, Showalter represents a victory for the Re-inventors, one that I wouldn’t have predicted last fall when it looked as though the Cutters on the board had the upper hand.


News & Notes: Catching up on Oregon music and dance news

Oregon Symphony gets out of the concert hall; University of Oregon awards; community support for Oregon composer

Symphony musicians chat with the crowd at Classical Up Close.

Symphony musicians chat with the crowd at Classical Up Close. Photo: Joe Cantrell.

Around the country, orchestras are connecting with their communities (particularly members who don’t already frequent their concerts) through various outreach and education programs. Led by Resident Conductor Paul Ghun Kim, the Oregon Symphony this week concluded its “Concerts on the Go” series in Portland-area schools. Last week, orchestra members played a concert built around Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf at two schools whose districts have committed to keeping music in the schools: North Clackamas School District’s Verne A. Duncan Elementary and David Douglas School District’s Gilbert Heights Elementary School, where two young Suzuki students played short violin solos. Yesterday, more than five dozen orchestra member performed a different concert at St. Mary’s Home for Boys that showed “the healing power of music” and the fact that young Oregonians can make a career in making music.

Oregon Symphony  members performed at Portland's St. Mary's School.

Oregon Symphony members performed at Portland’s St. Mary’s Home for Boys.

In another admirable community connection program, tonight (Wednesday), members of the Oregon Symphony Players Association head over to Brunish Hall in the unpronounceable Portland5 Centers for the Arts in an event co-sponsored by MetroArts, Inc., principal percussionist Niel DePonte’s arts education organization. They’ll perform music by Bach, Telemann, Portland’s own Kenji Bunch (what a great example for young Oregonians of how it’s possible for an Oregon native to make a successful life in music!) and more. Oregon Public Broadcasting’s April Baer will ask the musicians questions from listeners and audience members.

It’s the second of eight evening programs the orchestra musicians will present over the next week and a half in the return of last year’s free Classical Up Close programs; they’re also perpetrating “blitz” events in various spaces around Portland, including one at the downtown Powell’s Books last week, others at Portland City Hall and Portland State University and, today at noon, at the Symphony ticket office, 923 SW Washington St, featuring the splendid cellist Nancy Ives, with more to come.


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