The five Eugene Symphony concerts I attended in the first half of this year (I was unable to attend the all twentieth-century music Valentine’s Day concert) were of such diverse programming that it is hard to ally them all with one unifying concept. Audiences witnessed world-class virtuosic performances of standards of the classical concerto repertoire; giant assemblages of musicians filling the hall with stunning walls of sound; boundary-pushing, comfort-zone-crashing chromatic works from the late nineteenth century; mid-twentieth-century dance works; twenty-first century ensemble works of consonant complexity; ethereal experiments of light and sound; and an evening of international jazz artists, contemporary ballet performance, pop sonorities, and a knock-out performance by a high-school glee club.
Whew! That sounds like a good season from a selection of arts organizations in a city twice the size of Eugene, let alone the half-season output of one orchestra. Can that one orchestra maintain high standards in such a diverse array of programming?
Yes. And here’s how.
Natasha Paremski’s performance, in January, of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto was a synergistic triumph of wills. After the orchestra’s horn-blasting introduction, Paremski muscled her way into the tempo-control seat by pushing the ensemble to meet her slightly faster pace. Maestro Francesco Lecce-Chong and company worked hard to match her, the Maestro single-handedly lifting the orchestra up a notch with powerful gestures that belied his featherweight stature. This man knows how to work hard.
That effort defined the entire performance, with Paremski employing sophisticated nuances of tempo, articulation, and phrasing that stretched time and tension and even the orchestra’s cohesion. The results were a deliciously tense rapport that had everyone on the edge of their seats—musicians, pianist, audience—and a stunningly emotional performance that belonged not just to the virtuoso but to the orchestra and Maestro as well.
The ESO’s March program included John Adams’s Doctor Atomic Symphony, a masterful reduction of the score to his opera of the same name. Dr. Atomic is J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Los Alamos Laboratory of Manhattan Project fame, where he and hundreds of brilliant minds worked under great duress to create the atomic bomb. Gosh, what a romantic character, right? I must confess that I cannot understand how anyone would feel remotely forgiving of a man who worked so hard to bring about such a monumentally horrifying event: between 129,000 and 226,000 people died at Nagasaki and Hiroshima, most of them civilians.
Cognitive dissonance aside, I observed an audience transformed by the performance. Lecce-Chong labored for ten minutes to prepare listeners for the coming experience of Adams’s piece. He described the overall form and its relation to the dramatic structure of the opera, shared his own personal experience of its premier run, and called listeners’ attention to various standout elements of the symphony with section demos (the horns delivering a mighty fine sampling of their potential). Ultimately, the conductor assured listeners that the piece didn’t offer anything they haven’t heard before in other contexts.
But, several minutes in to the piece, I started wondering whether Adams’s angular melodies, whiplash transitions, and relentless development might be losing the audience. What was there to hang on to? A glance around the orchestra seating area revealed an audience in rapt attention, almost as if in a trance. The final trumpet obligato (an instrumental setting of Oppenheimer singing John Dunne’s Batter my heart, three-person’d God, from the final tragic moments of the opera, performed exquisitely by principal trumpeter Sarah Viens) reached in and twisted the heart strings, leaving some, no doubt, with tender feelings for Oppenheimer’s struggles. Though I did not share their sympathy, it was obvious to me that the audience had just had a transformative experience. Presented with challenging music on harmonic, textural, and rhythmic levels, they met the challenge with eager ears.
Color of sound
April’s “Color of Sound” concert, a collaboration with Eugene media magicians Harmonic Laboratory, was the culmination of over two years of planning, design, and production that succeeded brilliantly, and featured projections of digital imagery created by local high school and college students. Standout work included Rimona Livie’s aquatic setting of Debussy’s Claire de Lune—impeccably timed, with a remarkably wry wit and references to the ocean-born plastics crisis and tadpole-esque creatures (dare I say spermies?) morphing their way into a lunar orb. Felix Neelemen’s painterly response to Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream brought energetic brush strokes to life as dancers moving about a bright, fairy-world light canvas, fully embracing the canvas space and the whimsy of the music.
The showstopper of the evening was the giant “Radiance Orb” created by Light at Play and suspended above the orchestra. The impetus behind the evening was the elusive full staging of Alexander Scriabin’s Symphony No. 5, Prometheus: Poem of Fire. The composer’s dream for the lush symphony was to have a colored-light accompaniment throughout: a color organ, so to speak. Lecce-Chong and Harmonic Laboratory collaborated with Light at Play to bring that staging to life. Lecce-Chong transcribed the “light organ” part according to the composer’s specifications. The light organ itself (played by Jeremy Schroop) was specially designed to activate the eight-foot Radiance Orb—an intricate, spherical framework of light ropes and LEDs—which pulsed, throbbed, and glowed with unearthly energy. Even in a small space, such as a classic black box theater setting or a media gallery, this kind of mixed media production can be a huge undertaking and investment in time. At the scale of the cavernous Silva Concert Hall, the logistics are mind boggling. Yet, the dedicated creatives that envisioned the spectacle succeeded with a masterful production.
At ESO’s May concert, the assembled forces for Verdi’s Requiem topped 200 people. Each one of them had to have a chair; half had chairs and music stands. That’s a lot of setting up. And then there’s the take down. The stacking, the carting, the storage. Oof. Lot’s of work. Done well by the efficient, barely noticeable, Hult Center stage crew. Kudos to you all. I just wish the folks who put together the distracting super titles would have paid as much attention to detail. Perhaps the embarrassing typos would have been caught and corrected.
Verdi’s music, of course, is brilliant and impressive, offering the chorus the opportunity to open up the pipes and shake the foundations. Throughout the performance, the vocal soloists maintained the physical prowess that is required to sing over such an assembly; in fact, soprano Katie Van Kooten had the remarkable ability to drown out the orchestra with her brilliant, dramatic-coloratura delivery. The performance was what I’ve come to expect from the ESO under Lecce-Chong’s baton: inspired and, for this caliber symphony in this size city, likely inimitable. But the plus-80-minute duration, the relentlessly morbid, apocalyptic text (with its bizarre biblical grammar), and the visible test of endurance that the singers endured during their largely seated-staring-stoically-forward performance had me working hard to keep my eyes open. A few seats down, a fellow concert goer gave up pretty early on and snored gently till the standing ovation. However, the standards of the repertoire must prevail, and the spectacle that is Verdi’s Requiem was made anew to the high standards of the Eugene Symphony.
June’s Symfest 2019 (my first experience of the year-end party) was a delight to attend. After such a successful season of relevant new music, local creative collaborations, and stunning virtuoso performances, the musicians and the audience needed to blow off some steam. And once again, the ESO programming delivered. The preconcert activities included local Kutsinhira marimba band and other small ensembles performing inside and outside to a happily milling-about crowd of well-dressed scenesters (did I mention the yummy food carts?).
The main concert in the Silva Concert Hall featured Halie Loren and Tony Glausi, both local jazz favorites (Loren lives in town and Glausi studied at the UofO School of Music and Dance jazz program and now lives in NYC) as well as local dance troupe Ballet Fantastique, who offered oddly costumed, awkward dance numbers to accompany several of the night’s selections (the choreography had a bit of a “last minute” feel). Loren and Glausi delivered smooth, sultry standards including a lush rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies.” Though the evening suffered with lackluster non-vocal, instrumental arrangements of tunes made famous by Whitney Houston in a tribute to the singer (no singer in a tribute to a singer?), it shined in other areas. The Dorians of South Eugene High School stole the show with knock-out renditions of “Can’t Buy Me Love” by Lennon and McCartney and “You Make My Dreams Come True” by Hall and Oates.
After the concert, the black- and white-checked dance floor in the lobby was hoppin’ with happy ESO fans who shook it loose to the sounds of DJ Food Stamp. And up in the Soreng Theater, the Jazz Station sponsored a jazz cafe with local performers playing standards and a brief, intimate set with Loren and Glausi that crowned the evening of celebration. All-in-all an eclectic wrap to an eclectic, challenging, and greatly rewarding season.
On my way out of the Hult at the end of the night, I caught up with two musicians, toting violin cases, who had been tearing up the floor during Food Stamp’s set.
“You two were sure having a good time!” I said.
“Yeah, the Symfest is the only time of year we get to have any fun,” said one. “All the rest is that serious stuff.” They laughed hard at this and waltzed off into the night arm in arm.
I sure am glad that the musicians of the Eugene Symphony take the music so seriously. The lives of their audience are enriched immeasurably for their efforts.
Eugene Symphony hosts summer pops-style concerts at the Cuthbert Amphitheater in Eugene on July 26, at Bohemia Park in Cottage Grove on July 29, and at Stewart Park in Roseburg on July 30. Check the website for more details.
Daniel Heila writes music, plays flute, and loves words in Eugene, OR.