Oregon Symphony: “More intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly”

Orchestra's fall concerts feature music by Leonard Bernstein, Tchaikovsky, and Drake

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

“We musicians, like everyone else, are numb with sorrow at this murder, and with rage at the senselessness of the crime. But this sorrow and rage will not inflame us to seek retribution; rather they will inflame our art. Our music will never again be quite the same. This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

It was October 27, and the Oregon Symphony Orchestra was about to play music by Leonard Bernstein, Andrew Norman, and Pyotr Tchaikovsky at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. It had been an especially violent week in this violent country. Over the preceding week, pipe bombs had been sent to several prominent political figures. A few days earlier, it was the Jeffersontown grocery store murders. And, the day of the concert, the massacre in Pittsburgh.

Even the normally unflappable OSO President Scott Showalter was visibly shaken. He quoted the above portion of Bernstein’s remarks at a concert following the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. There are many Bernstein compositions that might have been more literally appropriate than Three Dances from On the Town, but all the composer’s more serious music requires choirs. Carlos Kalmar and the band got into it anyways, muted trumpets and trombones swinging and strutting, the winds bluesy and somber, Kalmar hopping on one foot for a big brassy New York breakdown, arms a-waving for quick meter changes, shoulders grooving hard.

Jeffrey Kahane takes his bows with the Oregon Symphony Orchestra

Turns out, these dances were just the right balm. And more appropriate than it may have seemed: the movie is about soldiers on leave during World War II, a trio of singing and dancing sailors who, for all we know, have just engaged in combat (or are about to). Nothing wrong with having a little fun as a form of grief and stress relief.

Enjoy the Concept

Andrew Norman’s new composition, Split, went the other way: the ersatz piano concerto, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for pianist Jeffrey Kahane—who performed with the OSO that night—is a sonic reflection of the mental fracturing we all suffer daily in our existence as harried screen addicts. Kalmar, in introducing the piece, described it as being about “all the many things that bombard our brain; Norman is fascinated with the bombardment and what technology does to us.” The music, Kalmar explained, was meant to imitate the feel of constantly switching channels and scrolling through media feeds, “and then you actually sit and enjoy something for five minutes.”

“I hope you enjoy the concept,” Kalmar concluded.

The channel switching effect was a lot like the similar trick Norman used in his percussion concerto Switch, which Colin Currie performed with OSO in 2016. In that one, Currie would hit a woodblock or cymbal and it would trigger different sections of the orchestra to turn on and off—a hundred-musician, live, acoustic imitation of a digital sampler. In Split, a cracking whip sound (courtesy of a slapstick) opened varying floodgates of massive orchestral sound blocks. Right from the first crack of the whip it was the sound of a glass jar falling off a cluttered counter and spilling its varied contents all over the kitchen floor, a hesitant cat on the high end of the piano, and then right into the same four-dimensional tonal territory Switch explored. But along with the sudden shifts in texture, Split also featured sudden and rapid shifts in everything: distant key centers bumping against each other in wild polytonal flurries, shepard tone strings out of the latest action movie trailer, mad cascades of the Japanese pentatonic hirajoshi, and a slowly rising atonal piano motif over scritchy jeté strings. It’s like those videos that play the first six Star Wars movies at the same time, but with all the Charles Ives symphonies.

Split never sounded cartoony, exactly, because most cartoons don’t induce nausea (Don Hertzfeldt’s wittily horrific nightmare elegies notwithstanding). No, Norman’s titular split was not only overwhelmingly audible but utterly visceral, the sonic equivalent of scrolling through your social media feed (fitting term, ‘feed’) while you have a hundred other tabs open and the stereo on. (Multiple stereos would be more appropriate, but who could afford it?)

Carlos Kalmar and Andrew Norman at Oregon Symphony pre-concert talk.

A dead-on spinning hubcap effect rose over the orchestra: it was percussionist Sergio Carreno, slowly spinning a triangle beater around the inside edge of a ceramic flower pot, a new one even for a percussionist like me. More of that jeté gesture, evoking Stravinsky and pterodactyls, individual violinists passing quick little buzzes around the section, mimicking Kahane’s piano. At one point, the piano’s fast, aggressive clusters sputtered out the “almost dead” cue from every video game ever made. Bitonal chord cascades popped in, a little like Don Davis’s Matrix score (itself a simulacra of John Adams’s Schoenberg ode, Harmonielehre).

Then Michael Roberts’s double-bowed vibraphone led the way into a long, madly beautiful dream sequence, with Charles Noble’s ethereal and drone-laden viola solo supporting Kahane’s pensive piano, a glimpse of stability and sanity, that “five minutes of sitting and enjoying something” Kalmar promised. Then another whip crack and back to scurrying woodwinds and a juicy klangfarbenmelodie across the whole orchestra.

The brouhaha finally came to a goofy end, the orchestra silent, Kahane delicately playing fake arpreggios up the keyboard, lightly touching the keys but not playing them. It was the sort of gag pianist Jeffrey Biegel pulled at PCSO’s performance of P.D.Q. Bach’s Concerto for Simply Grand Piano last year.

Afterwards, Norman himself came out to receive his ovation, shaking hands with Kalmar and Kahane, looking for all the world like the cat who got the cream. Norman took a biggish risk with his audacious over-the-top social commentary, and everyone seemed to like it, or they liked not liking it, which is closer to how I would describe it. It’s easy enough to rail against the non-melodic music so many composers have turned out in the last century, and rightly so—it is, from a certain point of view, a betrayal of what makes music meaningful and good on the human level. If you’re gonna eschew it, you’d better have a reason better than “it’s experimental,” an excuse with a shelf date just past the end of Schoenberg’s lifetime. And frankly, I think it’s a weakness if you have to be told what a piece of music is about before you can enjoy it, like the self-exculpating grey-text-inflected cards that often accompany abstract art. On the other hand, yes, Carlos, I did enjoy the concept.

I’ll give Norman a pass this time, for two reasons: the neato psychoacoustic orchestral effect did sound pretty cool; and he did, ultimately, gives us some real music. I could have listened to that one little bit with the aching piano and the lonely viola and the bowed vibraphone all night long. But five minutes is still only five minutes, and if it has to be bracketed by a half-hour of chaos and noise to make it sound good, I still have to question its value.

Tchaikovsky’s Affirmation

There’s no questioning the value of Tchaikovsky, however, one of the few old-timers who really deserves his continued seat at the symphonic table. After the fancy-free frippery of the Bernstein opener and Norman’s theater of cruelty (I mean that as a compliment), it was quite satisfying to lie back with Pyotr and let the exquisite spiritual suffering really soak in.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor opens with a morose, fateful fanfare for horns and brass and winds, a haunting, triplet figure that recurs throughout the symphony; the composer described it to his patron Nadezhda von Meck as “the fatal power which prevents one from attaining the goal of happiness.

The bright, brilliant beauty of the OSO’s oh-so-fine wind sections settled into the Schnitz like bandages on a secret wound, a Nietzschean affirmation that everything is ruined but life goes on, stronger than before or at least more interesting. The composer’s tortured, powerfully melodic soul cried out in several very fine woodwind solos—especially from principal bassoonist Carin Miller Packwood and the always lovely principal oboist Martin Hébert—and an even finer overall section sound, merging as a single voice from that opening fanfare all the way down to the circus finale.

But it was the string players who truly owned the symphony that night, playing with astounding power and grace throughout. In the second movement, dark and longing cellos passed their moribund melody across to stately and resolute violins; then everyone got all pizzicato in the third movement, an orchestra of bouncing balalaikas, that suburbia sound Elfman so elegantly steals. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the OSO’s string sections—always terrific, mind you—sound this damn grand, a miracle of lush melody and dramatic harmony, the sort of sound you could drown in, bitter cold like crushing winter waters, flaming hot with the fatigued passion of failure and frustrated desire.

Emotional Journeys

A week later, back at the Schnitz on November 8, guest conductor-composer-arranger-supermodel Steve Hackman explained his connection between Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E minor and the music of Canadian rapper-actor Drake. Hackman described both composers as “very transparent in the way they communicate emotion in their music,” and characterized the Fifth Symphony as “the kind of piece you fall in love with as a teenager.” Hackman explained how his arrangement maps specific Drake songs to specific symphonic themes, which recur together accordingly throughout the work. “Drake thus makes the emotional journey with Tchaikovsky,” Hackman concluded.

Before digging in, Hackman took a poll of the audience. “Can I hear from the Tchaikovsky faction in the audience?” A big woo, Portland showing its strange and unusual pride. “And the Drake people?” A much, much bigger woo, demonstrating who’s saving whom in this old equation and reminding us of the point of such exercises: combining Tchaikovsky with Drake introduces their respective audiences to the other’s music.

“We think of music in genres and categories, and we think of people the same way,” Hackman said as he brought out the four singers and turned to the orchestra. “Let’s destroy those barriers.”

Steve Hackman conducting the Oregon Symphony

Throughout the hour-long performance, Hackman casually bounced back and forth between podium and piano, conducting the orchestra and the quartet of guest vocalists from wherever he happened to be. At one point, on “Controlla,” he sat down for a sweet jazz piano solo. Later, in the penultimate “Cadenza—Birth of the Jumpman,” he said, “Can I talk to you for just a second?” and proceeded to rap about a “ghost light” while playing some virtuosic prelude.

When handling the purely Tchaikovsky moments, Hackman had this strikingly still, patient, attentive conductorly presence; when combining the orchestra with the vocalists, he treated the latter as if they were concerto soloists, with clear and commanding physical direction and maximum flexibility. He reminded me a lot of—well, yeah, Leonard Bernstein. Read ArtsWatch’s interview with Hackman when he last appeared with OSO.

As is customary for these Hackman arrangements, the vocal trio carried the bulk of the original harmonies, blending them over the top of the orchestra’s different harmonies, while in the lead role, rapper and singer Jecorey “1200” Arthur delivered Drake’s raps. Hackman has a terrifically modern sense of how to sit with all that harmonic tension—and how and when to resolve it. Often it’s just the way one harmony will recontextualize another (like in this Beatles mashup). For any of this stuff to work, you need amazing singers (the intonation work alone must be a total ordeal), and these three were more than up to the task.

Conductor Steve Hackman. Photo: Tom Russo.

I was particularly impressed with Jecorey’s sweet flow—it’s no mean feat to maintain 4/4 rap rhythms at odds with the orchestra’s 3/4 pulse.
Most of the time Hackman solved this by conducting in one (just the downbeats, not the standard three-beat pattern); the triplet groove merged with the sixteenth-note rapped and sung melodies, creating a groovy 4:3 polymeter, possibly another reason Hackman chose this specific symphony; how might he have handled the Sixth Symphony’s quintuple meters?

In the end, just hearing a contemporary vocal trio singing Tchaikovsky was pretty great. It made me think of the Swingle Singers singing their jazzy Bach; it made me want to hear Kingdom Sound sing Chichester Psalms. And I’ll admit I’ve become an admirer of Hackman’s. His Björk-Bartók mashup brings out the best in both composers, cross-pollinating their distinct and distinctive harmonic-melodic sound-worlds to create something absurdly unique. And that one, like Drake v. Tchaikovsky and Brahms v. Radiohead, features another astounding vocal trio, including Malia Civetz (one of the vocalists at this concert) and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and Tin Hat vocalist Carla Kihlstedt (a fine composer in her own right).

Interwoven throughout the Drake songs and Tchaikovsky melodies, the orchestra’s wonderful soloists got turns in the spotlight, including principal cellist Nancy Ives and Hébert on his oboe again. This night’s star, though, was principal horn John Cox, whose graceful solo on the famous andante cantabile was by far the best playing I’ve ever heard from him. The strings probably sounded just as good on this symphony as they had on the Fourth, but the simple act of keeping it all together was enough to provide the harmonic foundation over which all the rest of the massive art piece was layered; that is to say, they were hardly audible most of the time, but the ear would have missed them if they hadn’t been there. Like the drones in “Within You Without You” and “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

Oregon Symphony principal French horn player John Cox

In fact, for most of the hybrid work’s duration the orchestra as a whole was layered, often bitonally, under the Drake songs. All of Hackman’s stuff is like this: it’s the sort of panchromatic layering which has become increasingly acceptable since Varèse, Messiaen, and Lutosławksi first expanded on Schoenberg and Bartók with their blocks of sound and all-tone sonorities. Now, a hundred years after The Rite of Spring, anything is possible and the bigger the better, as we heard in works like Norman’s Split and other new compositions the OSO has performed recently (Katherine Balch’s Chamber Music, Kevin Puts’s Letters from Georgia, Gabriel Kahane’s emergency shelter intake form, Chris Rogerson’s Azaan).

Taken as a whole—and compared with Nicole Buetti’s wonderfully melodic Odyssey Overture, premiered this year by Vancouver Symphony Orchestra—it paints a very particular picture of one corner of contemporary classical music. It’s playing a socially responsive and reflective role for the Oregon Symphony and its cultured audience, in much the same way the German Expressionists and Italian Futurists projected the anxiety and angst of their time onto their art. As much as I enjoy hearing music written by my contemporaries—and all the compositions I just mentioned are indeed well-crafted and enjoyable compositions—I wish we could hear more from the Three Dances from On The Town end of the spectrum. A little Lou Harrison would go a long way here, as would anything by Nokuthula Ngwenyama, David Ludwig, Joan Tower, Gabriela Lena Frank, Jennifer Higdon, and so on. More balm, please!

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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One Response. Have your say.

  1. bob priest says:

    Norman is a big talent – one of the biggest we got these “daze.”

    That said, I’m not so sure I need to endure another one of his sonic bludgeonings that essentially mirrors our over-stimulated, multi-tasked & attention span of a coked up gnat daily lives.

    In other words, I’m sorry I missed the gig! :)))

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