Oregon Symphony review: Disappearing act

Hallowe'en concerts deliver three tasty treats and one unhappy trick


Under a typically energetic music director Carlos Kalmar, the Oregon Symphony delivered a powerful yet always beautifully nuanced Hallowe’en concert. The band played with soul and precision in a program of Leos Janacek, Sergei Prokofiev, and Samuel Barber. But something important was missing.

That something was a convincing— even an acceptable — performance by the evening’s featured soloist, violinist Joseph Swensen.

Violinist Joseph Swensen

Violinist Joseph Swensen

After a ten-year stint as conductor of the well-regarded Scottish Chamber Orchestra and spells as conductor of other orchestras and opera companies, Mr. Swensen has lately concentrated on appearing as a soloist, but his involvement with chamber music has been a lifelong passion, and this taste for intimate music was all too evident in his playing of Barber’s 1939 Violin Concerto.

Throughout all three movements — the lovely thirteen-minute Allegro, the equally fetching eight-minute Andante, and the lightning-fast four-minute Presto — Swensen played facing the orchestra, as if participating in a string quartet in someone’s living room. Worse, his tone was fatally soft. Most of his notes were lost in the orchestral texture around him when they should have led the way. Swensen’s right arm was the lightest this reviewer has ever heard in a solo violinist. All of the beautiful interplay of the first two movements was simply lost as Swensen seemed to try to usurp an orchestra seat rather than play his designated role. And the perpetual-motion finale, which should be a bravura display, 110 measures of non-stop arpeggios, came across as a sort of noisy dumb show, with Swensen virtually inaudible throughout. At the end, he threw up his arms exultantly, like a marathon runner, and the audience responded to his gesture with an undeserved but all too common Portland standing ovation. This seemed an ironic commentary after such a disappointing experience.

Swensen’s performance seemed a double shame because the orchestra played so well under Maestro Kalmar’s sensitive, detailed, and precise direction. Soft passages throughout the evening were especially good, achieving the goal of quietness with no loss of rhythmic gesture, one of the marks of great orchestras. And in the final movement, with the strings and winds flying beside the solo line, the playing was sure and confident.

Devilish Doings

As was the orchestra’s playing in the first half of the program. Kalmar warmed up the band and the audience with a six-minute version of Janacek’s excerpt from the Prelude of his final opera The House of the Dead, composed in 1927, just a year before the composer’s death. The lugubrious subject matter, drawn from Dostoevsky’s autobiographical story of the four years he spent in Siberian prisons, seemed appropriate for Hallowe’en, even if it contrasted somewhat with the exuberant and colorful, if violent, instrumentation of Janacek’s score. It was a fitting introduction to the concert’s longest offering at 35 minutes, Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 3.

Based on material Prokofiev harvested in 1929 from his unstaged opera The Fiery Angel, this piece was an attempt to transform dramatic music into an abstract symphonic form. The story of the opera, based on a novel by Valery Bryusov, serialized in 1907-08, deals with religion, thwarted love, and demonic possession, themes not otherwise present in Prokofiev’s work. At the end, an entire nunnery is possessed by devils while the heroine is sentenced to death by burning by the forces of the Inquisition.

Sergei Prokofiev in New York, 1918

Sergei Prokofiev in New York, 1918

Appropriately, the symphony is an exercise in the forces of evil, as portrayed in forceful and often loud music that rises to crushing crescendos without ever stopping its forward motion. This refusal to break individual movements into sections — to stop and start — is a characteristic of Prokofiev’s music. Here the effect is to underline the irresistible march of fate.

Many of the symphony’s most powerful moments involve percussion instruments. Four players manned a battery of instruments and put in yeoman service, especially principal percussionist Niel DePonte, who exhibited speedy sleight of hand while switching sticks on the bass drum, which enjoys one of the most prominent roles in classical music outside of Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slave and 1812 Overture. Elsewhere, in the second-movement Andante and the third-movement Allegro agitato, when things were quieter, the orchestra produced some gorgeously sinuous playing under Kalmar’s evocative direction.

With its complex musical language pushing at the bounds of traditional tonality and its lack of sustained melodic invention, Prokofiev’s symphony is easier to admire than to love. One doesn’t walk away humming its tunes. That being said, the orchestra and its conductor rose to the challenge of a difficult task with all the skill and conviction one could ask for.

The Janacek and Prokofiev selections, both mainly loud and brash, formed a trio with the curtain closer, Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor for organ, in Leopold Stokowski’s 1928 orchestral arrangement used in Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia. Here one marvels at how one instrument, the organ, could occupy and entire orchestra with its textures. The queen of instruments, indeed. And also the King Kong of instruments: Bach’s organ piece, played on a suitably large instrument, generates much more volume than a mere 60 or so musicians hunkered over their instruments. Maestro Kalmar and the orchestra did Stokowski proud. It’s only a minor quibble to note that an extra twenty or thirty violinists would have helped.

Thus the Oregon Symphony’s Hallowe’en program: three pieces, all appropriate to the season in theme and style and very nicely, even brilliantly, played by the orchestra, and one piece, also played well by the orchestra, but sabotaged by one violinist’s diffident execution.

Recommended recordings

Janacek, House of the Dead PreludeBrno Czech State Philharmonic Orchestra, Jose Serebrier conducting (Reference 2103); Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Charles Mackerras conducting (Decca); Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Frantisek Jílek conducting (Supraphon, 1983).

• Prokofiev, Symphony No. 3: Neeme Järvi–Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Neeme Järvi conducting, (Chandos 8401); London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev conducting (4-Philips 000632902); São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop conducting (Naxos NBD0047).

Barber, Violin Concerto: Anne Akiko Meyers, London Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin conducting (eOne Music EMCD7791); Elmar Oliveira, Saint Louis Symphony, Leonard Slatkin conducting (EMI Gemini 5865612); Hilary Hahn, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Hugh Wolff conducting (Sony SK89029).

• Bach/Stokowski, Toccata and Fugue in D minor: London Symphony Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski conducting (14-RCA Victor Red Seal 1916852); José Serebrier–Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, José Serebrier conducting (Naxos 8572050); Matthias Bamert–BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Matthias Bamert conducting (Chandos 10900).

Terry Ross is a Portland freelance journalist and director of The Classical Club, through which he offers classical music appreciation sessions. He can be reached at classicalclub@comcast.net.

Want to read more about Oregon music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

One Response.

  1. Nancy Stephens says:

    You and I apparently attended different concerts. Mr Swensen played beautifully and his sound was definitely audible. He turned toward the orchestra during some of the tutti sections, seemingly enjoying the orchestra’s gorgeous playing. In
    The 3d movement, his technique was incredible. Sorry you missed it.

Comments are closed.