Oregon Symphony: borrowed batons

Guest conductors lead orchestra’s October concerts

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

Guest conductor Jun Märkl dashed out onto the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall stage, cueing the snare drummers mid-stride as he hopped up onto the podium and launched the oldest orchestra west of the Mississippi—your Oregon Symphony Orchestra—into our national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The audience and most of the orchestra got to their feet, hats in hands, everyone singing or at least humming. Classy move, Märkl.

Märkl continued the October 1st concert with a few words about the OSO’s world premiere of its latest commission, Chamber Music by Living Composer Katherine Balch. “It’s a special piece,” Märkl said. “This orchestra is very committed to new music and to creating new music.” He gestured to the full orchestra and joked about the seemingly contradictory title: “you may wonder why we have such a big orchestra here.” Balch’s music, he explained, is meant to convey a chamber-like intimacy in which we might “come together and discuss certain things, whispering to each other.”

Märkl also issued a light-hearted warning: “there will be no melody, but very beautiful sound experiences, very unique.” A good warning for an audience which is adventurous, sure, but generally in more of a Messiaen sort of direction; Balch’s music was sparse and, as promised, amelodic. Yet it was a compelling amelodicism, a shimmering sonic blanket quilted from microswaths of richly colored acoustic fabrics, harmonic in an aggressively non-functional way, halfway between the John Adamses. Waves of dazzling brass, swelling out from muted trumpets and trombone glissandi, surging across the stage to the horns. A sine tone emerged from a pair of intent trumpets and threaded its way around the orchestra through wavering winds and spectralist strings. The sudden ending was ruined, perhaps, by an overhanging cymbal (quickly muted).

Märkl’s conducting style was equally well-suited to Haydn as to Balch: a light, precise, attentive approach that had him leaning into each section, carefully communicating dynamics and character around the orchestra. It paid off early in the short symphony (No. 83, aka “The Hen”) with an exquisite, Westworldy theme that shimmered around the first movement (Haydn’s myriad brief symphonies are packed with such delights). The two of these back-to-back are just about everything I love about this orchestra: cool, stylish, brave, confident, afraid of no music new or old.

Jun Märkl conducted the Oregon Symphony. Photo: Christiane Höhne

Copland’s piano concerto opens with a bold, dissonant brass fanfare—that Big Iconic American Sound—and the OSO brass delivered the gooseflesh as they always do. Soloist Inon Barnatan came out all Americana with a clustery, Cowellesque solo and a bunch of boogie-woogie business, his playing loudly graceful, never thundering but never timid. The concerto’s overtly Gershwinesque moments are all so much cleaner than actual Gershwin—that familiar whitewashed Copland aura—but Barnatan grooved it up and dressed it down. Winds and brass got into weird Dixieland multi-soloist passages, super corny stuff but played well, all of it no doubt directed (in jest perhaps) Bernsteinward. If it had been just a little dirtier, if the folkishness and syncopations had gone a little further in a Khachaturian/Bartók direction, this might have been a truly great piano concerto. Ah, but then luscious strings bring back that tortured tritoney melody and a recurring, distinctly non-jazzy clarinet solo, the return of the brass all massive and Milhaudy—that’s when we hear the true Copland, the modernist hiding inside the populist.

Barnatan’s solo encore blew me away, an inventive set of variations on Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” the timeless tune emerging slowly from behind mega-fast flourishes and cascades of Messiaenic post-tonal strangeness.

Inon Barnatan performed with the Oregon Symphony

It’s easy to pick on poor Brahms, born in the wrong decade, always looking over his shoulder, always fighting the future, perched perilously on Beethoven’s shoulders, invariably building better than he knew. He’s at his best when he can match his knack for witty musical ingenuity to his heartfelt gemütlichkeit and sublimated sturm und drang, which is why his symphonies are better than his piano music (#sorrynotsorry). Brahms champion Eduard Hanslick said of the Fourth Symphony, “it is like a dark well; the longer we look into it, the more brightly the stars shine back.”

String players seem especially fond of Brahms, and the OSO’s strings played with warmth and a playful gravity; the winds got all dark and chewy, with a restrained melancholy like Tchaikovsky in a warmer climate. Hearing this symphony an hour after Haydn’s brought to mind the composer’s fundamentally nostalgic gaze, this last Romantic, the first neo-Classicist. Rapid mood changes suffuse the symphony, but it’s never anything too drastic — Dionysus well restrained by the more sober Apollo, two gods relaxing in a warm cabin in the forest with a stack of Handel records. After a stirring third movement that got every Yes fan in the audience all excited, the closing movement arrived with its enduring passacaglia, a low and hypnotic flute solo from Martha Long, and finally some damn trombone action, a beautiful trio supported by horns over sweet low basses, a gooey, fudgey Brahms brownie.

Eastern European Excursion

On October 14, OSO presented its 17th performance of the season—a season which started barely a month ago—and celebrated the release of its new album Aspects of America (featuring Kenji Bunch’s Aspects of an Elephant, commissioned and premiered by the OSO last year). The evening featured no American composers though (not even Bernstein), instead offering two suites from Polish composers, a concerto by a Finnish composer, and a symphony by a Russian composer. You’d think such a lineup would be unbearably dreary (especially on such a balmy mid-autumn Portland evening), but the music mostly played against Western stereotypes. Wojciech Kilar’s exciting and pastoral Orawa contrasts with the more dramatically sinister music he is best known for, and Witold Lutosławski’s playful Little Suite similarly contrasts with his better-known, more bombastic orchestral works. Meanwhile, dour old Dmitri Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony is a very a personal ode to joy, a merry celebration of the end of the brutal second world war. Sibelius will, of course, always be Sibelius.

Guest conductor Michał Nesterowicz, scorning both podium and music stand, stood there in his long dark coat and led the orchestra in Lutosławski’s modernistic folk suite from memory. After the little drum rolls, piccolo solo, and savage pulsations of “Fife” and the oboe duet against galloping brass “POW” chords of “Polka,” the “Song” featured solos by clarinet, flute, and oboe, with low pizzicato strings under distant trumpet fanfares, brooding bassoons, and a soaring melody in the violins. The closing “Dance” started out all tromp-trompy before plunging subito into some deliriously gorgeous string melody straight out of Hollywood, passing to lovely oboe and insanely beautiful brass, creeping up on a sudden ending like a whirling child collapsing to the floor after spinning in exuberant circles.

Nesterowicz deigned to bring out a music stand for the Sibelius Violin Concerto, soloist Karen Gomyo afoot at his elbow. Through frosty muted violin chords and snowy candlelit clarinet, Gomyo floated defiantly on the concerto’s mercurial, tragic-heroic theme. The adagio brought on lovely winds and a superbly bel canto horn section underneath the violin’s tortured, virtuosic love song. The allegro’s 16th-note triplets, jagged barrelling rhythms, and high harmonics: the proud, boastful displays of a suitor, Sibelius in love, a shivering Romeo in a frozen garden, Cusack on the driveway with his eternal boombox, Cyrano with his mortal head wound.

I checked the program to discover who had inspired this towering, tantric orgy of frustrated desire—the face who launched those thousand notes—and learned that what we’d just heard was the composer’s bittersweet farewell to an instrument he had tried—and failed—to woo and master. No wonder his concerto sounded so forlorn! This intense narrative quality shone all through the wonderful performance given by Gomyo, Nesterowicz, and OSO that night—a large-scale counterpart to the ersatz chamber concerto violinist Jennifer Frautschi made out of Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale at CMNW this summer.

Karen Gomyo played Sibelius with the OSO.

You can hardly be blamed for thinking of vampires when you think of Polish composer Wojciech Kilar—as one of the century’s most adroit dual film-concert composers, he’s largely known outside the concert hall for his ominously delightful score to Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (and dozens of other soundtracks, including a few for real-life vampire Roman Polanski). But Orawa, for string orchestra, ratchets down the drama to depict the scythed grass and shepherd dances of Poland’s Tatra Mountains. A perpetuo moto violin solo from concertmaster Sarah Kwak hovered over shimmering violins, toggling back and forth between a pair of close tonal centers, a little like Miles Davis’s “So What.” Suddenly the strings started sawing away, tramping on the harvest, a European hoedown, Bartók meets Copland, then big closing chords and the whole orchestra shouting “hey!” It sounded like film music, of course, which is to say it was music with emotional depth and a good balance between dramatic momentum and evocative tone painting. It was over practically before it started, making me want to run home and listen to Kilar’s magnificent Magnificat.

Apparently a decade of purges and war were enough to take some of the bite out of Shostakovich’s signature satirical symphonic style. His ninth—in a simultaneous celebration and rejection of Beethovenisch neunheit—is joyful, sure, but also rather unbeethovenically brief and jolly. Nesterowicz conducted from memory again as a sunny piccolo solo opened the symphony, highlighted by summery snare drum and spry solo trombone; later, solo violin contended with punchy brass; a clarinet solo became a duet over strolling low pizzicati, and the soloing soon spread to flute, oboe, bassoon, trumpet. (There are a handful of great orchestral composers whom OSO plays regularly and brilliantly—Mahler, Haydn, Stravinsky—and Shosty is probably the best of these). In the largo, the low brass got their moment, leading to a long, slow solo from bassoonist Carin Miller Packwood that brought us finally around to the allegretto’s Haydnisch cavorting and Felliniesque circus routine, a light fast coda of jugglers and sword swallowers, a big troika climax, ta-da!

Coming Soon

OSO has a whole mess of Tchaikovsky coming your way in the next few weeks. This weekend, it’s his damoclean Fourth Symphony, opened by still more Bernstein (may his centennial never end!) and Split, Andrew Norman’s piano-vs-orchestra melee, composed for Gabriel Kahane’s dad Jeffrey. November opens with three performances of Doug Fitch’s puppet production of Petrushka; those concerts feature yet another Haydn symphony along with some Walton and Honegger. Then, on November 8th, superstar composer-arranger-conductor Steve Hackman (of Brahms v. Radiohead and Bartók v. Björk fame) brings another of his pop-classical mashups to the Schnitz: this time, Tchaikovsky faces off against Drake.

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, singer, percussionist, and editor of Subito at Portland State University, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com

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2 Responses. Have your say.

  1. Jack Gabel says:

    thanks Andrew for your insightful recounts – only made it to Michał Nesterowicz’s performance – enjoyed it greatly, thanks to OSO’s participation in the Art For All program – let’s all encourage the city’s arts orgs which do not participate to get onboard

    somewhere in an interview Michał Nesterowicz talks about his preference for conducting from memory – says he feels more connected to the orchestra without the need to read ahead and stay on top of page turns as when working with a score – would be interested to know why he chose it for the Sibelius – as for podium, at close to 6’10” he doesn’t need one and without is literally closer to the musicians

    have heard it rumored that this wave of guest conductors is in part a close-to-the vest OSO conductor search – if so, Michał Nesterowicz seems to measure up both figuratively and literally – but, considering the state of the arts, society and politics in the US, luring top-notch talent from almost anywhere else could prove challenging – Nesterowicz is currently Principal Guest Conductor with the Sinfonieorchester Basel and tours the world

    • Thanks Jack! I couldn’t agree more about Arts for All.
      6’10″…that explains it! And yes, he certainly seemed more intimately connected to the musicians he was standing in the midst of (while still kinda looming)
      My guess is his Sibelius score was there for the soloist’s benefit 😀
      That sounds about right re: guest conductor auditions. If that’s the case, I’d say Nesterowicz nailed his interview. Worst case scenario, something like the arrangement VSO has with Brotons might work here…though it really wouldn’t be the same, would it?

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