The unexpected, heavy snowfall that hit Portland on Wednesday, February 23, caused the Oregon Symphony to cancel rehearsals for the following couple of days. Consequently, the musicians couldn’t regroup to practice until Saturday–which resulted in canceling that evening’s performance–and reducing the program for the Sunday and Monday concerts, with only Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana on the program and Paul Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler dropped altogether.
There was still some snow and ice on the sidewalks downtown, but most of it had been scraped aside on Sunday afternoon when I got to Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. A brisk wind and some rain pelted the concertgoers who waited in a long line extending half a block up Broadway to obtain tickets that they had changed from Saturday to Sunday. That delayed the concert a bit, but everyone seemed in a good mood and the hall was filled to the brim for Carmina Burana.
British conductor Leo Hussain led the program, which he summed up in his introductory comments as conveying the sex, drugs, and rock and roll of the Middle Ages. The lineup featured Portland State University Choirs, the Pacific Youth Choir, soprano Catherine St-Arnaud, tenor Arnold Livingston Geis, and baritone Elliot Madore. Considering the lack of rehearsal time, the performance went well, though it did come up a bit short.
Singing without masks, the Portland State University Chorus delivered the text (mostly Latin, but also some Medieval Bavarian dialect and dabs of French) with excellent diction, but the men could not be heard as well as the women. For example, more presence and heft in the men’s voices would have helped especially in Floret silva nobilis chorus when they sang “Hinc equitavit!” and “Der is geritten hinnen!” to create a sense of riding away on a horse (starting loud and then fading). In taberna quando sumus needed to grow in sonic volume, but didn’t, and the women overshadowed the men in several of the final choruses.
Madore’s ultra smooth baritone expressed the Omnia sol temperat solo beautifully, but he struggled to be heard above the orchestra in Estuans inteius. He excelled in delivering the drunken boasting of Ego sum abbas Cucaniensis – complete with a well-placed hiccup – from the balcony but anyone who sat under the balcony were deprived of seeing him.
St-Arnaud’s bright soprano lit up her solos, but it had a bit of a flinty edge. Tenor Arnold Livingston Geis had a field day with the treacherously high Olim lacus colueram, adding humor by tossing feathers from his perch in the choir loft. The Pacific Youth Choir, standing in front of the stage, sang with unified purity.
Hussain chose outstanding tempos, but his transitions to orchestral interlude Reie and the Tempus est iocundum chorus were ragged. Yet overall, the performance by all forces resonated positively with the audience, which responded with a standing ovation.
Orff was a complex fellow. He was dedicated to music education and developed methods for children that are still used today–but historians have pointed out that during the Nazi era, he could have saved some Jewish lives but chose not to. As Alex Ross pointed out in The Rest Is Noise, after WWII ended:
…Orff misleadingly present himself as an associate of the anti-Nazi resistance, and OMGUS gave him a clean ideological bill of health. It helped that Newell Jenkins, the local theater and music officer, had studied with Orff before the war.
OMGUS refers to the Office of Military Government, United States, which oversaw the American occupied areas.
I have brought up this piece of information about Orff because the next Oregon Symphony concert, on March 11, dealt overtly with the topics of tolerance and intolerance. The orchestra’s music director, David Danzmayr led the program, which delved into music of composers who had complex viewpoints.
Danzmayr mentioned during his opening remarks that he is from a Jewish family and his great grandfather was killed by the Nazis in the Second World War in a concentration camp. So, you might wonder why would Danzmayr conduct a piece by Richard Wagner, who wrote a hideous diatribe against Jews in Jewry in Music. Danzmayr cannot stomach Wagner’s opinion about the Jews, but he feels that Wagner wrote great music. On top of that, early in his career Wagner was a friend of Mendelssohn, who had a Jewish background but became a devout Protestant. Later, Wagner decried Mendelssohn, and made him an object of ridicule in his terrible book.
Rather than shun Wagner altogether, Danzmayr kicked off the concert with the Overture to Renzi, one of Wagner’s early operas. Interestingly, this performance became the first time in the orchestra’s history to perform that piece, a staple you can normally hear at least once a week on most classical music stations. The orchestra played the piece to perfection, with Jeffrey Work issuing the famous trumpet call. The brassy, pile-driving ending in which themes layer on top of each other was just flat-out stupendous.
The concert closed with an inspiring performance of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5 (Reformation). But the one odd thing was Danzmayr’s conducting style in the first movement. He jabbed every beat with agitated, choppy stickwork. It looked really excessive, yet it worked because the musicians played that movement outstandingly, bringing out the themes of conflict and tempering them with the ethereal, rising tones of the Dresden Amen and then finishing things off with a rousing pummeling from the timpani. The second movement provided a delightful contrast with playful woodwinds leading the way. Danzmayr showed an array of fluid gestures to create an exquisite third movement. His conducting superbly elevated the noble and triumphant final movement, inspired by Martin Luther’s Ein’ Feste Burg ist unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress is our God) – with extra kudos to the lovely playing of principal flutist Martha Long.
The centerpiece in the first half of the program was pianist Gabriela Montero and her piece for piano and strings entitled Babel, which was inspired by the biblical story. It represented some of her feelings regarding her homeland, Venezuela, and the need for people to stop yelling and listen to each other.
Babel offered a continuous stream of statements from the keyboard that elicited commentary from the orchestra. Sometimes the piano grumbled and rumbled while the orchestra played sustained notes. At other times, both the piano and the orchestra went their own ways as in a huff. That caused a chaotic effect of two sides who were talking over each other. The tapping of bows and even light verbal discussions between various musicians punctuated discordant emotions. A brief pause followed by a relaxing cadenza by Montero seemed to calm things and a harmonious sound-world began to emerge. That harmony slowly became more pronounced, and the piece concluded with gentle trills and a sense of optimism.
After the audience responded with exuberant applause, Montero returned to the piano and explained that she loves to improvise. In fact, she has loved to improvise ever since she was a little girl. She then asked the crowd to sing a phrase or suggest a tune. Someone in the balcony shouted Happy Birthday. So Montero briefly played the Happy Birthday song, and launched into an elaborate, spontaneous fantasy that began in a classical, Mozartian style, transitioned to a Beethoven-like episode, and ended up in Rachmaninoff-land – with snatches of Happy Birthday laced throughout. It was awesome and brought down the house.
The orchestra also gave an exceptional performance of Vilém Tauský’s Coventry, which was his response to the Nazi bombing of the town of Coventry. Tausky was well-noted as a conductor of light, happy music like the waltzes of Johann Strauss Jr. But his experience of helping to rescue people after the bombing caused him to write the somber and profound, one-movement work, which ends on a note of sadness. The warm and emotive sound of principal violist Amanda Grimm highlighted the piece, gracefully adding to its depth. Perhaps the orchestra should consider Coventry for a recording some day in the future.
Speaking of the future, we got a glimpse of that when double-bassist Maggie Carter played A Carmen Fantasy with the Portland Youth Philharmonic at the Schnitz (March 4). Carter, winner of PYP’s annual concerto competition, excelled with this very challenging piece, which Frank Proto wrote for the great virtuoso François Rabbath.
Right from the top, Carter expertly commanded a wicked cadenza that had lots of filigree, but she also created a beautiful sound that warmed up the hall. A treacherous exposed solo in the second movement had lots of double stops – well they didn’t stop Carter at all. She evoked a wistful cantabile in the third movement, followed by the famous Toreador song in the fourth – which ended with a delightful zing. Her fingers were flying all over the place for the final movement and that included some very smooth, almost glassy tones. Her awesome technical prowess and artistry caused the audience to erupt with a standing ovation.
The PYP gave the world premiere of a piece by Jeff Scott, the wonderful horn player whose many years with the Imani Winds made him a familiar face at Chamber Music Northwest concerts. Now a professor at the Oberlin College and Conservatory, Scott has kept his sense of whimsy, because after he completed the piece, he didn’t give it a title, and he didn’t name any of its five movements. Instead, he asked the musicians of the PYP to give the piece a title and to name each movement. Wow! Has that ever happened before?
So, the musicians called Scott’s new piece, The Journey and its movements: 1) The Awakening, 2) Fool’s March – Dance of the Jesters, 3) Falling Serenade, 4) Depression, and 5) Heroic Return. Musical director David Hattner mentioned in his introductory remarks that the music was very cinematic, opening with a strong theme announced by the cellos that moved into the orchestra and became a bit mysterious at times. The odd, off-balance march in the second movement deftly mixed the double basses, contrabassoon, oboes, snarling trombones and other instruments – plus clip-clopping percussion. A sloping melody nicely shaped the third movement. The fourth was a strings-only affair, evoking a sullen and anguished sentiment that was interrupted by a beautiful solo from concertmaster Timothy Lee. A fanfare of horns lightened things up in the final movement. A joyful theme emerged with swirling piccolo, walking bass line, and a jazzy flute, brass, and drum set that swept up the entire orchestral ensemble and ended the piece with an upswing.
The concert wrapped up with Ruth Gipps’ Symphony No. 3, a large expansive piece that received its U.S. premiere in this performance. Gipps–a British composer whose works are being rediscovered–achieved a good amount of success in the concert hall, but never received the full appreciation of her talent because of her gender.
Her Third Symphony began with high drama, weaving explosive crescendos with leaping lines for the horns, rich textures for the bass clarinet, a lovely solo for concertmaster Lee, and rumbling timpani. The cellos took over the next movement with a strong melody, which dissolved into lighter phrases for other sections of the orchestra. The following movement danced along and featured excellent ensemble playing by the principal string players before finishing with passages that evoked the countryside. A expansive sound from the brass highlighted the last movement, which also contained many dramatic moments before subsiding to a quiet and moody ending.
You might have noticed that the New York Youth Symphony just won a Grammy award for Best Orchestra Performance. Perhaps the PYP could get into the running with a recording of the Gipps. Hattner, who is now in his fifteenth year with the orchestra, has an excellent track record (you can hear him conducting the work of Tomáš Svoboda, including the beloved Czech-Oregonian composer’s Second Symphony, on PYP’s recent album here). You never know until you try.