Festivals of the future

Oregon Symphony’s reborn season, examined

With over a million vaccine doses delivered and summer looming, the Oregon Symphony has announced their return to the Schnitz for a 2021-2022 season. This isn’t simply a re-formulated version of the cancelled 2020-21 season, though a couple of pieces reappear. You can investigate the whole season for yourself right here.

There are two other exciting pieces of news, one of which is the hiring of new music director and conductor David Danzmayr (stay tuned for our interview with Danzmayr in the coming weeks). The other is the Schnitz’s acoustic renovations; the OSO has been coy about that so far, so we eagerly await more details. What we know is that the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust generously donated the $1 million that will pay for the renovations. 

Despite their season being cancelled last March, the symphony has adapted to the moment with their Essential Sounds series, the Storytime series and “minute for music” (listen to them all on Youtube here). Considering how poorly some organizations treated their musicians near the beginning of the pandemic, the Oregon Symphony has done a good job keeping their musicians employed over the last year.

This video may be the best musical primer for the new season: Danzmayr conducting Gabriela Lena Frank’s Elegía Andina, which we will hear at the first concert of the season, alongside a premiere by local violist and composer Kenji Bunch and Mahler’s death-defying Second Symphony.

Big names and popcorn

For the most part, the Symphony will keep up their usual programming pattern: one big-name classic piece on the back half to get people into the seats, with a front half of either contemporary composers or lesser-known works, often featuring a touring soloist or OSO artist-in-residence for a concerto. It’s a balanced and effective (if predictable) method for programming. 

What this program reads to me is that Danzmayr is not going to drastically change the formula, at least not yet. The Oregon Symphony will continue to put the big names and most popular pieces right up front. There will still be one Mahler symphony a year (which, to be clear, I have absolutely no problems with). You’ll get your Beethoven, your Messiah, your classics paired with just enough new stuff to make the young folks like me satisfied.

The symphony’s Kids Series continues next season, presenting music for young audiences, from Mozart to Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Some of the concerts carried over from last year include a Gospel Christmas, Itzhak Perlman, Pink Martini Valentines Day, Cirque Nutcracker, and Merry-achi Christmas with Mariachi Sol De Mexico (led by Jose Hernandez). The Pops Series will bring the music of Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong; Havana Nights featuring the Mambo Kings; and John William’s 90th Birthday Bash. Frequent vocal collaborators with the Oregon Symphony return: the Oregon Repertory Singers and the Portland State University Choir. We don’t know who the soloists will be yet, though given their history with the OSO they will easily hold their own.

We also get the Popcorn Series of music to accompany films, with family-friendly classics including The Nightmare Before Christmas (scored by editor’s favorite Danny Elfman), Pixar’s Coco and cult-classic The Princess Bride. And we finally get our opportunity to hear the twice-delayed African-American Requiem, written by local composer and baritone Damien Geter and commissioned for the Resonance Ensemble, which then added the Symphony and All Classical Portland as collaborators. For a primer on what that will bring, check out our threepart interview with Geter last year. The premiere will be on May 7, 2022 so mark your calendars.

Here comes the future

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It may be useful to examine where the OSO is and where it is going in relation to its fellow west coast orchestras. The other big player in the Pacific Northwest is the Seattle Symphony, who have comfortably taken their spot as a champion of modern music. Not only did they premiere John Luther Adams’s Pulitzer- and Grammy-winning Become Ocean, they have released many recordings of modernist classics, along with the (first?) complete recording of French composer Henri Dutilleux’s orchestral music.

Under the tenure of Ludovic Morlot their releases included works by Ravel, Ives, Stravinsky, Nielsen, Messaien, Boluez, Berio and Dalbavie, all accompanied with a signature album art style. Their 2021-22 season boasts an impressive commitment to modern music via their Masterworks series, including a commission for Seattle-naitive Kishi Bashi, EO9066, about Japanese Internment during World War II. As far as I can tell, the Seattle Symphony hasn’t seen any decline in ticket sales or prestige in the last decade, which rebukes the claim that audiences don’t want to hear new music.

It’s too early to tell where the music of the 20th century ends and the 21st century begins (at least for classical music––you’d never hear anything like Death Grips or 100 Gecs in 1996). But to get a sense of where things are going, we can look at the music that makes its way onto concert programs and studio album releases, or gets wide sheet music publication. This process of canonization is complex, as critics and audiences trim the excess fat, skin and bone into a perfect edifice of the past. We can also wonder who else guides this process–audiences? the “free market?” We can look back and see for certain that there are apparently 10 or so composers from an entire century worth listening to, but living through the moment shows that it is not so simple.

Large institutions have done the most to shape the canon, and this brings forth responsibilities. The Institute for Composer Diversity’s survey of the 2019-2020 orchestra season ranked the Oregon Symphony fourth in the country for most women programmed, and second for most works by underrepresented ethnicities and cultures among top-ranked US orchestras. Each category represents twelve percent of all works programmed for the season, with some overlap between them. On this count, the OSO fares better than the national average (around eight percent) and far ahead of the NY Phil, LA Phil, Boston Symphony, Chicago and San Francisco.

When I look at the total list of works performed throughout the country, one major thing sticks out: some of the most performed works by underrepresented groups in 2019-2020 ended up on OSO programs for 2021-2022. Anna Clyne’s This Midnight Hour and Within Her Arms, Higdon’s blue cathedral and George Walker’s Lyric for Strings were some of the most performed works by composers-who-aren’t-white-men, and they’re all on the upcoming season. Interesting that a canon of contemporary music already seems to be coalescing around a few works.

Festivals

Carlos Kalmar will remain as an Emeritus conductor, and returns to perform Mahler’s Ninth Symphony–the only piece with which his tenure could’ve ended. The usual interpretation of Mahler’s final completed symphony is that it is a farewell, a meditation on life and death. It is a continuous series of stunning musical moments for nearly an hour and a half leading up to its harrowing ending, what Bernstein called “the closest any piece of art has come to depicting the physical act of dying.” 

Another highlight from the cancelled program I’m happy to see return is Agon, a late work by Igor Stravinsky. The late period contains the least-known music of his extensive oeuvre, with his early ballets and neoclassical middle periods overshadowing them in popularity. Most classical concertgoers will be familiar with The Rite of Spring, Symphony of Psalms and maybe Oedipus Rex, but much less familiar with Agon, Requiem Canticles or Threni.

Deriving its name from the greek word for “contest,” or “festival,” Agon is a ballet that (like Stravinsky’s neoclassical works) evokes Medieval and Ancient Greek festive music with his signature spikiness and clean texture. It is also notable among his works for being his first tentative step into serialism, an aesthetic he violently rejected during the heyday of Schoenberg and Berg. Stravinsky’s take on serialism was always idiosyncratic, and his late works aren’t too much more difficult for listeners than Les noces or Les Sacre–just with a bit more dissonance. 

Pairing Agon with Kareem Roustom’s Dabke provides a nice modernist program to break up the season. Roustom is a Syrian-American composer whose heritage plays a large role in his music: Dabke has the string section taking cues from the fretless Arabic oud, with glissandi and quarter tones galore drawn from the maqam tonal system. For those who prefer more traditional fare, these November concerts also feature Tchiakovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture and Mozart’s Fourth Violin Concerto, performed by James Ehnes. 

We’re also greatly looking forward to Berg’s Seven Early Songs in the final concert of the season. We missed out on Christian Tetzlaff playing Berg’s Violin Concerto, but this will do. It is another work in Berg’s style of hyper-romanticism: chromatic-yet-tonal harmonies and rich, swirling textures supporting oddly singable melodies. This appears on the season finale alongside Frank’s Pachamama Meets an Ode and––what else?––Beethoven’s Ninth.

Another concert to get excited about: guitarist Aniello Desiderio performing Leo Brouwer’s Tres Danzas Concertantes, a piece full of surprising harmonic moves that seem to take it far afield from what one might expect from a guitar concerto, while remaining contiguous with some of the extremely chromatic contemporary guitar repertoire. The Brouwer is paired with William Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony and Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, perhaps the most important concerto in the classical guitar repertoire and a fine counterweight to Brouwer’s Danzas. For a taste, check out this video of a conductor you may recognize in front of the Radio and Television Orchestra of Spain with guitarist Pablo Sainz-Villegas.

Turkish pianist and composer Fazil Say joins the symphony for Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, a piece whose greatness needs no explanation. We also get the opportunity to hear one of Say’s compositions, a fantasia written in 2015 called Grand Bazaar. Setting aside Sony Classical’s “exotic” album art (veiled woman with suggestively raised eyebrow), Grand Bazaar does the cultural-exchange thing quite admirably. Notably, the piece eschews clarinets for a collection of Turkish percussion instruments, a nice homecoming for a percussion section whose ordinary instruments originate from Turkish janissary music. I’m happy to see a greater number of composers from the Middle East (Say, Roustom)–which somewhat makes up for the grossly orientalist Adams violin concerto Scherezade.2 they performed last year (in my notes I see this piece referred to as “that f*****g Adams piece.”)

Missy Mazzoli is one of the most recognizable names among the world of young composers–and another whose works are slowly joining that new canon. The symphony will be taking on her These Worlds in Us for the first concerts of 2022 (January 8-10), conducted by new Principal Guest Conductor Jun Markl. These Worlds in Us reminds me aesthetically of some of the OSO’s premieres in the before-times, their premieres from Oscar Bettison and Gabriella Smith: these large, expansive textures coupled with neo-tonal harmonies. It’s outwardly beautiful music. 

We also get another piece from Gabriella Smith, a newer work called Riprap. The Oregon Symphony commissioned her Bioluminescence Chaconne, one of our favorite premieres of the 2019-2020 season, so it will be exciting to hear more from her. Additionally, the Oregon Symphony will perform Jennifer Higdon’s blue cathedral, a touching elegy for her late brother that has entered regular rotation across the country. 

George Walker’s gorgeous Lyric for Strings really soaks in its harmony, as all great string ensemble music does. George Walker was the first African-American composer to win a Pulitzer, the year before Wynton Marsalis would win for his jazz oratorio. Walker died in 2018 at the age of 96. The Lyric for Strings is also known as the “Molto Adagio” movement from his First String Quartet, continuing a long tradition of beautiful slow movements for string quartet turning into full standalone arrangements. Despite more than a few similarities to Samuel Barber’s famous Adagio for Strings, Walker’s Lyric is a bit more uplifting.

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About the author

Charles Rose is a composer, writer and sound engineer born and raised in Portland, Oregon. He graduated from Portland State University with a degree in Sonic Arts and Music Production in 2019. His piano trio Contradanza was the 2018 winner of the Chamber Music Northwest’s Young Composers Competition. He releases music on BandCamp under various aliases. In addition to composing, he is a sound engineer for chamber music group FearNoMusic and is an editor of the Portland State music journal Subito.

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