Portland Playhouse A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens Portland Oregon

Oregon Symphony and Renée Fleming kick off the season in style

Fleming and baritone Rod Gilfrey help open a promising symphony season with a musical tale of Georgia O'Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz.

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Operatic superstar Renée Fleming, with baritone Rod Gilfry, helped the Oregon Symphony open its season.

The Oregon Symphony opened its season in grand style at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on September 24 with soprano superstar Renée Fleming and baritone Rod Gilfry singing The Brightness of Light, by Pulitzer-Prize-winning composer Kevin Puts.  Based on the exchange of letters between Georgia O’Keefe and her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, The Brightness of Light evoked the passion and complexity of the two artists, who lived most of their married lives separated by 2,000 miles: O’Keefe in New Mexico and Stieglitz in New York City.

The music was deftly sung by Fleming and Gilfry. Fleming has an expressive, silvery tone with lots of nuance. Gilfry’s robust baritone was solid and distinct. The two sang toward standing microphones, which helped when the orchestral sound reached forte levels. But Gilfry’s voice overpowered Fleming’s when the music grew louder, making it difficult to understand the words. Still, the best part of the piece were the last two wistful, elegiac sections that Fleming sang.

Composer Puts did an amazing job in selecting some exquisitely poetic text from thousands of missives. The first letter of the piece expressed O’Keefe’s innocence and hopefulness as she contacted Stieglitz to inquire about her charcoals and “what they said to you.” Stieglitz replied that her artwork had brought her closer to him. Their feelings for each other (and Puts’s music) gathered steam and surged for “the reaching of something in the whole body for the center of heaven.” While she painted in New Mexico, she told him to “think of me with hands like dark brown gloves.” He pictured himself dying in her arms, “a black cross against a blue sky.” She loved the Southwest, describing the sky – “grey blue clouds were riding all through the holiness of it” and the “land that seems more like ocean than anything else I know.”

The orchestra, expertly directed by David Danzmayr, heightened the emotion of the text.  A couple of orchestral interludes gave the singers a chance to rest a bit. There was also a dash of humor when concertmaster Sarah Kwak played a brief out-of-tune passage that corresponded to O’Keefe’s attempt to learn how to play the violin, and her admission that “you never in your wildest dreams imagined anything worse than the noises I get out of it.”

But it was a strain to read the text in the program with the lights in the hall turned down somewhat. Projected titles would have helped immensely. Also, when The Brightness of Light has been done by other orchestras, it has been accompanied by projected images of O’Keefe’s paintings and of photos of them. The imagery would have enhanced the concert at The Schnitz and made the piece a complete package.

After intermission, the orchestra excelled with Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations, which the composer wrote to elicit certain characteristics of his friends. Each variation received a distinct and colorful performance by the ensemble, and you could feel the audience become absolutely riveted in its attention when the famous Nimrod variation was played.

The concert opened with a sparkling rendition of the Overture to Bernstein’s West Side Story in an adaptation for symphonic orchestra by Maurice Peress. The orchestra played it with verve that made you sit back in your seat and reminisce over each melody.

Danzmayr sported a buzz cut that maybe gave him a more serious look. Many conductors, from Paavo Järvi to Jaap van Zweden, do not have a forest growing on their heads. But Danzmayr’s new look did not change his very expressive conducting style, and he seemed to be in his element once again on the podium, which bodes well for his second year with the orchestra.  

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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