An outstanding performance of rarely heard works and a thoughtful, personal account about gender identity created a wonderful blend at Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra’s concert on September 15. Presented in the comfortable confines of BodyVox Dance Center, the program offered musical selections that spanned from the late Baroque to the mid-Twentieth Century. Collaborating seamlessly with Music Director and conductor Steven Byess, pianist Sarah Davis Buechner played with verve and spoke about her transgender experience with insight and humor.
With the PSCO trimmed to a chamber formation (strings, two oboes, and two horns), all of the musicians could easily fit on the main floor of the BodyVox Dance Center and still have room for a Bechstein grand and the conductor’s platform. The most unusual thing was the huge mirror along the back wall that gave a direct view of Byess’ face and gestures.
The acoustics were lively but not warm (no reverb). With the orchestra and the soloist just a few feet away, I initially thought that the sound would become deafening if they blasted a double forte, yet none of the pieces rose to that level. On the other hand, it was difficult for the forces to generate pillow-soft pianissimos–but they came close.
The concert began with a purely orchestral number, the festive Sinfonia (known as The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba) from the third act of Handel’s oratorio, Solomon. The strings elicited clear, taut lines that swelled majestically with the playful oboes accompanying them.
Buechner excelled in her performance of Mozart’s Rondo for Piano and Orchestra in A Major. Each phrase was shaped with nuance in regards to the dynamics so that the piece sparkled yet had plenty of refinement.
Playing Saint-Saëns’ Caprice-Valse (aka the Wedding Cake waltz), Buechner’s artistry executed lots of leaps and runs that took her fingers all over the keyboard in a quicksilver way. At times, the piece had a silly quality that put a smile on listeners’ faces. It all added up to a delightful confection that drew enthusiastic applause.
Byess, who is now in his tenth season with the orchestra, led the ensemble in his arrangement of Florence Price’s Adoration. Price had originally written the piece for organ, and it has been transcribed for string quartet and other ensembles, but Byess’ version is the first one for string orchestra. It sounded soothing, gentle, and graceful – a true tribute to Price, whose music is experiencing a resurgence after almost being totally lost.
British composer Gerald Finzi labored on a grand piano concerto for many years, but only its second movement, Eclogue, was finished. It received a peaceful interpretation by Buechner and the orchestra, which was befitting of the pastoral nature of the music. It was easy to imagine a rolling countryside somewhere in England. In a couple of sections where the piano had an extended solo, the orchestra did an excellent job of quietly sneaking in.
Buechner told of a time when she was in Madrid, Spain, where she met the daughter of Joaquín Turina and got a tour of the composer’s house, including the roof-top terrace with its very colorful abundance of flowers. Buechner then seemed to channel that experience when she launched into Turina’s Rapsodia Sinfónica. Her playing exuded moments of fiery exuberance that contrasted really well with the whispery passages from the orchestra, and the piece concluded the concert with gusto.
The concert represented the third appearance by Buechner with the orchestra, all with Byess conducting. Their comfortable way of working together gave the event an enjoyable, intimate quality. Byess introduced each piece with a tidbit of historical background, and Buechner talked about her life, briefly touching on memories that were poignant and funny. Her message of accepting her true self and envisioning a world that accepts diversity was strong but not overbearing, and it all blended exceptionally well with her music making.