by MATTHEW ANDREWS
The Oregon Symphony Orchestra started its season in September with two of the more unusual, less typically classical types of concerts it regularly produces. The first was part of the film-with-live-score series, always among the OSO’s most popular concerts; the second was an evening of overtures and songs and a favorite recurring guest star. The movie was Star Wars, the first and original (retitled A New Hope when the Empire Struck Back). The special guest was superstar soprano Renée Fleming, premiering a new song cycle by Kevin Puts and singing hits from her classical, cinematic, and Broadway catalogs (told you she’s a superstar).
In both concerts at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, the OSO came out swinging for the fences, sounding sharper than I’ve ever heard it. And this weekend, the orchestra continues its live film score performances with that other long-running science fiction film franchise. More on that below.
It’s fitting that symphony orchestras have been saving themselves from oblivion by performing film scores by composers like John Williams, who is generally credited with reviving and saving the orchestral tradition in film music. Watching any movie, in a concert hall instead of a movie theater (or living room), with living and breathing musicians performing the score in person like any other symphony, is always multiple different experiences: concert performance as much as movie screening. When it’s Star Wars, you’re bumping elbows with a couple thousand other Star Wars fans, listening to supremely iconic music which is possibly more important than the film itself; these fans love this movie and its soundtrack as much as your average concert-goer loves Brahms and Beethoven, and the excitement in the Schnitz that night was, ahem, a palpable Force.
A film is a smorgasbord of varied art forms. To watch a movie is a plurality of experiences, driven by narrative and character like theater and literature, photographed and edited into an illusory farrago of moving pictures, decorated with an assortment of audio and visual effects, and given life with some sort of musical score. When opera first became a thing back in the 1600s, it got its name—which simply means “works”—from the way it combined music with other existing arts like poetry, dance, acting, and stagecrafty stuff like set design and costuming (not to mention the mechanical dragons, flying stages, and now the various multidisciplinary effects the 21st century has birthed). Now that film has supplanted opera as the most perfect art form (#sorrynotsorry), it’s only appropriate that one of the greatest would turn out to be the space opera Star Wars.
Star Wars itself is a plurality of experiences: it’s a fairy tale and a hero’s quest (several of them, in fact); it’s a gritty 1970s-style “used future” sci-fi picture, part of a lineage that stretches from 2001 to Moon; it’s a miracle of independent filmmaking, simultaneously a myth-making blockbuster and the work of an idiosyncratic auteur in love with documentaries and samurai movies; it was the first movie a lot of us fell in love with, and after 40 years and however many sequels/ prequels/ books/ games/ cartoons the first one remains the best (second best if you count Empire, but that’s an argument for beers and joints; fight me later).
Williams’s score adds to this all this rich profusion, and not just because it’s so damn good or because it marries that gritty realism to all the lofty, heroic, transcendent, mythological, Romantic ideals which are the film’s heart.
Williams is one of the Great Composers, with every right to steal from Stravinsky, Holst, and Bartók (as those composers in turn stole from Debussy, Wagner, et alia), and that makes him part of the same time-honored tradition as the rest of OSO’s normal repertoire (any ass can hear that). Raise the screen and I could believe this was just another symphonic poem, an evening-length concerto for orchestra by one of America’s most successful living composers. It’s funny, in a sad sort of way, that Williams generally doesn’t show up on “greatest American composer” lists like this one
All of this made it a distinct thrill to hear Star Wars performed on September 9 by the same orchestra we last heard playing Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. Although Williams’s score is customarily connected to the classical world with the formula “Wagner via Holst and Korngold,” the composers I hear the most in this music all showed up on OSO concerts last season.
• The tribal-mechanical percussion, the menacingly heraldic brass, the creeping weirdness of the low woodwinds: all are features of OSO’s old friend The Rite of Spring, and performed with the same sense of familiar immediacy.
• The mythological, melancholy strains of that immortal Force theme, the rebellious sentimentality of Princess Leia’s theme, the grand sweeping gestures and the heroic fanfares and the quiet intimate moments: all played with the deep spiritual sincerity the orchestra invariably brings to Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and Brahms.
• And when Williams’s score gets sciencefictional, it does so by operating in the complex 20th-century sound world the OSO already knows so well from Bartók, Schoenberg, Hindemith, Prokofiev, and Messiaen.
In its September 23rd opening concert, the OSO came out in fine form, starting the show with a bit of Richard Strauss (the tone poem Don Juan), the horns sounding especially wonderful, Teutonic trombones muscular and rotund, principal oboist Martin Hébert dazzling on his solo.
Renée Fleming came out in a glorious fuchsia Vera Wang gown and talked a bit about Letters from Georgia, a song cycle written for her by Pulitzer-winning composer Kevin Puts. Fleming recounted the work’s inception in the letters between Georgia O’Keeffe and her husband Alfred Stieglitz which Puts used as a libretto, calling them “very steamy, very powerful.”
Puts won his Pulitzer for his first opera, and operatic sensibilities shine all through Letters from Georgia. Right out the gate the orchestra plays a series of huge post-tonal sonorities, a big full modern symphonic sound, the world of Adès, Britten, Davies, Henze, Higdon; by contrast, most of the vocal passages were supported by clear instrumental textures, leaving space for the all-important melodies, giving Fleming’s voice and O’Keeffe’s words room to breathe. Huge moments would give way suddenly to very small passages: a tender duet between clarinetists James Shields and Todd Kuhns (the fourth song, “Friends”); a 4-mallet vibraphone solo from Niel DePonte (the closing song, “Canyon,” which was certainly the best of the five); a series of solo violin passages for concertmaster Sarah Kwak (including a comically gnarly bit of devilish fiddling during the second song, “Violin”). Throughout it all Fleming played the superstar, one voice against a hundred instruments, her performance alternately vulnerable and assertive, always beautiful and evocative, bold and individualistic but subservient to the text, the story, the music.
Puts is a curious composer, and it’s no wonder he’s been successful: like David Ludwig, he’s managed to absorb and transmute a century’s worth of modern music and make it sound fresh, contemporary, relevant, and accessible. All the usual Serious Modern Classical stuff is here (the third song, “Ache,” brought Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra forcefully to mind), but Puts’s harmonic sensibility sounds mostly chord-driven, not unlike the music of John Adams, Missy Mazzoli, Gavin Bryars, or any number of film composers.
The music was almost entirely composed by Americans, aside from the Strauss opener. Samuel Barber’s School for Scandal overture closed the first half, with galloping brass and another fine solo from Hébert (answered by a cor anglais solo from Kyle Mustain). Leonard Bernstein had to make His customary appearance (2018 is contractually obliged to provide audiences with massive amounts of Bernstein, and thank gods for that), and the OSO crushed it on the ever-popular overture to Candide; the violas and cellos killed me when they came in with that exquisite 7/8 melody (“Oh Happy We”), all lush and yearning. A bit of pretty Coplandia—two movements from his Tender Land Suite—gave us some more yummy english horn and the best brass playing of the evening.
When Fleming returned, she had traded the fuchsia gown for a gorgeous sparkling silver-and-lavender getup. “I love gown applause so much,” she said; “it makes it worth it!” She added, sotto voce, “ladies, you know what I mean.” She sang two sets in the second half, a trio of her many film songs followed by a handful of show tunes from the Great American Songbook. “Bel canto indeed,” I thought to myself as Fleming began beautifully singing “Ombra di Nube;” the song is from the movie Bel Canto, in which Fleming stars as the singing voice of Julianne Moore (“I’ve never looked so beautiful!” Fleming joked). “‘Tis the Last Rose of Summer” (used in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) was my favorite of these three, Fleming’s voice absurdly reverberant all through the hall, floating above the orchestra, as if she were singing through a bunch of delay pedals instead of standing on the edge of the stage with nothing but her voice and a silver-lavender gown.
Fleming did get on mic a few times, first on “You’ll Never Know” from The Shape of Water, a torch-song sort of ballad with bass flute, a tasty trumpet solo, and some very nice brush work by DePonte. She used a mic for the whole Broadway section, which she introduced with a joke about her Tony-winning run earlier this year on Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel: “I survived eight nights a week!” The orchestra sounded great on all of these, and the brass were especially wonderful on Meredith Willson’s “‘Till There Was You” from The Music Man.
Buoyed, no doubt, by the ease and clarity of microphoned singing, Fleming brought a great deal of character to her performances, queering any idea of a distinction between serious music and fun music, between high art and low art, between opera and musical. To paraphrase Ellington, there’s only two kinds of singing: good and bad.
The concert ended three times. First, the last of the Broadway songs: Sondheim’s “The Glamorous Life” from A Little Night Music, with its “bring down the curtain la-la-la” refrain and a magnificent virtuoso climax. “That song is normally sung by six characters and a chorus,” Fleming said afterwards, barely even out of breath, “so I thought I’d do it all myself.”
Two encores followed. First, “Danny Boy,” which Fleming had recently sung at John McCain’s memorial service. After that, Fleming asked “are you up for one more? This is my favorite aria—I sing it at every concert.” Tears for McCain turned to gasps of delight as audients in the know realized they were about to hear Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro.”
OSO has another film concert this weekend, and although Star Trek is, for all its merits, nowhere near as symphonically iconic as Star Wars, Michael Giacchino’s score for the third installment of the film reboot series is pretty sweet and will sound wonderful under Huynh’s baton. Tickets are still available for tomorrow’s performance.
Next weekend, the orchestra performs music from European composers outside the West: Polish composers Lutosławski and Kilar, a Shostakovich symphony, and Sibelius’s violin concerto (featuring Karen Gomyo).
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.