After the Eugene Symphony’s 2018-19 season opener, high like only a classical music geek can be and thoroughly lit by a stunning performance of Shostakovich’s fifth symphony, I wandered around the Hult Center’s cathedral-like atrium. Eventually, I paused in front of a blackboard-sized whiteboard that stood in the center of the lobby. A question scrawled across the top asked: How did the concert make you feel? Without hesitation, I grabbed a marker and wrote, Like I should be paying more attention to the ESO.
Then a niggling worry crept into my head. Yes, without a doubt, it was the best performance of Shostakovich’s masterpiece I had ever heard (live or recorded). And yes, I had given myself over to the shameless, spine-shivering, scalp-tightening response that such performances elicit, even jumping to my feet and joining my fellow concert goers in the all-too-common standing ovation (and I meant it, goddammit!). BUT! Could this level of excellence be maintained? Now, having attended all the concerts in the season’s first half and many of the orchestra’s excellent concert-week community events, I can confidently say…no…and yes…and thank goodness for that!
Each Monday before a regular season concert, ESO sponsors a happy hour at a local tavern. This is not just a good reason to suck suds. Francesco Lecce-Chong, the event MC, is such a fresh, bubbling well of knowledge, and his fans so eager to sip from that source (beers neglected, going warm on table tops), that the content and comradery of some of the courses in my masters of music degree work pale in comparison.
For the symphony’s November concert featuring the Eighth Blackbird contemporary ensemble, the symphony artistic director drew connections between J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 and Jennifer Higdon’s On a Wire (a piece written for Eighth Blackbird). Both pieces are in a ritornello style, he explained, using a recurring tutti section (entire orchestra playing as one) separated by solo and chamber sections (a technique attributed to Giovanni Gabrieli). By playing excerpts from both pieces, Lecce-Chong prepared his audience for a better listening experience, taking the edge off Hidgon’s 21st century, sharply orchestrated, kaleidoscopic harmonic canvases.
The next two days brought demo performances (including discussions and presentations) throughout the community: a duo performance by Eighth Blackbird clarinetist Michael J. Maccaferri and flutist Nathalie Joachim at a local healthcare facility, a lecture on women of color in classical music by Joachim, a masterclass with the whole ensemble for UO contemporary-music chamber ensembles (the transformation of one ensemble’s playing, after employing some of Blackbird’s suggestions, was moving to witness), a discussion with Eugene composers in the Hult Center’s studio, and a free Meet the Orchestra concert for 3,000 area primary school students. Of ten excerpts performed, seven were from the 20th or 21st century, making the concert an extraordinary opportunity for local youth to experience art music of their time.
All this is part of ESO’s excellent outreach programming, in which the orchestra reaches out into the community, seeding it with learning opportunities, cultivating future subscribers and performers alike. Most events are free and open to the public. And the format is repeated for each concert, with focus on the visiting performers and concert programming themes. For any subscriber, single-concert goer, or classical music enthusiast who can’t afford a ticket, these events are opportunities to engage with world-class performers, learn about historical or current concert music trends, and gain cultural enrichment within a robust arts community of professionals and laypersons.
The ESO’s guest artist series is perhaps its kingpin effort. Eighth Blackbird’s November 15 concert was one of four guest appearances this fall. On September 27th, cellist Julie Albers transformed on stage into a fierce cello dark mage during a stirring performance of Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo. On October 18, pianist Ran Dank practically elevated off the bench in his effort to engage his listeners, launching hammered-crisp chains of notes into the audience during Leonard Bernstein’s Age of Anxiety Symphony. On December 6, violinist Chloë Hanslip repeatedly ripped frayed hairs from the bow in her impassioned performance of John Corigliano’s Red Violin. Through ESO’s guest artist series, Eugene is charged with the energy of a new breed of virtuosos: technically brilliant, musically mature, worldly entertainers who are equally adept interfacing with the community as they are channeling great works on stage. Yes, yes, and more yes.
No, no, we mustn’t cringe at the no. It is well established in the canon of the world’s wisdom literature that embracing and learning from mistakes leads to mastery. That is what the ESO and artistic director Lecce-Chong have been doing by pushing the envelope of their playing capabilities and their audience’s courage. And by making the mistakes that such bravery often includes (and learning from them), they’ve grown into a force for progress in an otherwise sedentary industry and led listeners into a more fulfilling relationship with classical music’s future and with their city’s arts culture. Perhaps it is necessary to highlight mistakes made–program gaffes (redundancy of having David Schiff’s tepid “James Brown influenced” Stomp in the same lineup as Bernstein’s sparkling, jazz-embodied period masterpiece Age of Anxiety), format errors (using dull-witted super titles that cast a creepy, sexual predatory vibe over Bernstein’s Fancy Free), performance weaknesses (maestro’s frequent struggles to control tempo, a chronically unprepared horn section, intonation issues in the winds, and one too many blatts from the brass)–but perhaps not. These are ancillary concerns that, once addressed, are soon forgotten.
So, maybe it isn’t possible for ESO to maintain the wonder of that Shostakovich performance. But is that a bad thing? Can’t it be seen as a high point in a flawed swell of awesomeness? Gems are found in rubble, pearls in salty goo, true democracy in its response to gas-lighting demagogues. And all that takes time.
And thank goodness for all that–for the sunlight in deep mines, the sensual pleasure lurking in ugly food, the personal anguish that drives social reform, the latent mastery in the efforts of a talented, mid-league, professional orchestra like the ESO. Lucky us, we get to empathize with their failures and celebrate their successes. The struggle to create, to improve, to approach mastery is what drives artistry, what causes a composer to put pen to staff paper, a child to blow breathy notes on a flute.
Do we really want a pro-ball orchestra, dull in its virtuosity, predictable in its mastery, repetitive in its repertoire? I think not. I’ll take the sloppiness with the finesse, the unexpected genius with the infrequent mediocrity, the success of the underdog over the comfortable arrogance of established classical music institutions. Hands down, as a classical music lover, I prefer the ESO, my hometown hunnies, who put so much effort, talent, and time into enriching my cultural life and that of Eugene as a whole. Catch their awesomeness.
The Eugene Symphony continues its 2018-19 season Thursday, January 24 at Eugene’s Hult Center, with a program featuring Natasha Paremski performing Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto and two twentieth century works by European masters: Carl Nielsen’s restless Symphony No. 4, and Polish composer Grazyna Bacewicz’s lively Overture for Orchestra. For tickets, click this link.
Daniel Heila writes music, plays flute, and loves words in Eugene.
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