Chamber Music Northwest Orion Quartet The Old Church Portland Oregon

A sampling with plenty of verve: Oregon Symphony’s “Mosaic”

Conductor Deanna Tham, curator Gabriel Kahane, and a mixed-up mashup of modern and classical orchestral music at The Reser.


Oregon Symphony Associate Conductor Deanna Tham. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Oregon Symphony Associate Conductor Deanna Tham. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Musical influences and the time-honored tradition of “stealing”–borrowing, lifting artistic ideas from one composer to the another–received an excellent sampling at The Patricia Reser Center for the Arts (May 5). The Oregon Symphony, led by associate conductor Deanna Tham, teased the near-capacity audience with an eclectic program, curated by Gabriel Kahane, chair of the orchestra’s Creative Alliance.

Called “The Law of Mosaics,” the concert sought to reveal connections across four centuries with pieces or movements from works that extended from the late Baroque to a few numbers written just a few years ago. A lot of connective tissue in sonic form floated through the hall, and though Kahane made relevant introductory remarks to each half of the program, he left it up the audience to connect the dots. That gave the concert fun and engaging style that was a bit tongue-in-cheek.

Kahane kicked things off from the piano in back of the orchestra. He sang a piece that he had commissioned from Andrew Norman about the need to listen. Kahane’s smooth voice – punctuated with a pure falsetto for some very high notes – was accompanied by brief rivulets from the keyboard. He followed that with an enticing introduction that compared the music on the program to an “eight course tasting menu” and also to “layers of Russian nesting dolls.” Holla!

The orchestra performed “Palindrome for Andrew Norman,” the second movement from Ted Hearne’s The Law of Mosaics. The movement consists entirely of passages that Hearne took from other works and then modified, disguised, and transmogrified into something fairly strange and wonderful. A lot of extended techniques for the strings created tension via slick, sliding glissando-like sounds, buzzy and gnawing phrases, and squeaky eruptions. It seemed that two reed instruments created the sound of a portative organ. The wild stuff cleared out for a snippet from Bach and another from Mahler but the rest was up for grabs. 

This was followed by the first movement (Allegro di molto) from C. P. E. Bach’s Sinfonia in D major, and that reset everyone’s ears. The Bach was exquisitely done by the orchestra, which, by the way, was reduced to fit the size of The Reser’s smaller stage. 

Jessie Montgomery’s Records from a Vanishing City, inspired by the recording of a lullaby sung by an Angolan women’s choir, received an arresting performance. The piece began out of the mist, mysteriously. Calls back and forth between sections of the orchestra and individual musicians emerged over time. Bassoonist Carin Miller played a beautiful melody that floated above the steady violas. Jazzy licks from trumpeter Jeffrey Work and clarinetist James Shields spiced things up. After a huge tutti crescendo, it seemed that many instrumentalists got a short solo. A lovely melody for a quartet of violins was followed by a slow, relaxing passage for the lower strings, and the piece subsided into a prayerful ending.

Next came an energetic rendition of the third movement (Presto – Assai meno presto) from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Tham led the orchestra in shaping the sound with excellent dynamic shifts. 

After intermission the audience got a full tick-tock experience with György Ligeti’s Poéme symphonique (“Symphonic Poem”) for 100 Metronomes. Yep!  There were one hundred metronomes placed across the stage and around the audience, and all were wound up and let loose!  The audience did chatter a bit, and I heard comments that it sounded like rain and crickets. After about ten minutes some folks began to applaud, perhaps in hopes that the tick-tocking would end. But as the sound wound down, it became interesting to guess which metronome would be the last one to give up. Of course, it was the one in front of the conductor. 

Tham and company dived straight into the second movement (Andante con moto) of Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 with gusto. The exchange of phrases between sections of the orchestra was one of the many highlights of their playing.

A more reduced ensemble of thirteen performed Andrew Norman’s Try, a wacky number that Kahane described as Looney Tunes meets Wile E. Coyote. That was an accurate statement! The piece was accented by scatter-shots of smirks, slaps, blasts, zips, whacks, and fart-like noises. The strings fashioned raspy, scratchy sounds. Flutist Alicia DiDonato Paulson created a hollow, thin whistle. Shield generated a breath-like tone from his clarinet. There seemed to be a constant change of meter throughout the piece. It was as if Stravinsky had gone on a Hollywood bender. No matter what, Tham amazingly held it all together. 

The final piece on the program was the fourth movement (Andante – Allegro) from Louise Farrenc’s Symphony No. 2. The orchestra delivered its lovely melodic lines crisply. The fugue-like passage perked along with plenty of verve. Tham got so caught up in the music that her baton clipped the music stand, and she dropped it but picked it up without missing a beat. She was so quick that a friend of mine told me after the concert that he didn’t even notice it.

Tham’s precise baton work, shaping of dynamics, and infectious style was very impressive. Her conducting encouraged an excellent ensemble sound that worked well with acoustics of The Reser.

I also enjoyed the informality of the concert, starting with Kahane darting around in sneakers and talking to the audience as a friend rather than as a stiff academic. I’d look forward to Kahane concocting another mosaic-like program in the near future.

James Bash enjoys writing for The Oregonian, The Columbian, Classical Voice North America, Opera, and many other publications. He has also written articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition. He received a fellowship to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera, and is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.
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