Oregon & Vancouver Symphony Orchestras: reanimating the exquisite corpse

Enjoyable but uneven fall concerts spotlight orchestras but suggest untapped potential for traditional concert format

By MATTHEW ANDREWS

Two Northwest orchestras—one in Portland, one in Vancouver—recently put on a couple of concerts epitomizing the Perfectly Ordinary Symphonic Concert. In November, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra performed music by Hector Berlioz, Aram Khachaturian, and Felix Mendelssohn; in December, Oregon Symphony Orchestra performed Anders Hillborg, William Walton, and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Each concert offered one take on the standard three-beat symphonic concert formula: Overture—Concerto—Symphony. It’s a little like a good date: Dinner—Show—Bed. The concerts followed that routine pretty closely, showing off each orchestra’s strengths, giving the spotlight in turn to guest soloists, individual orchestral soloists, and “the four sections” (strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion). And, aside from the invariable maleness of the compositional pool, each concert featured a good balance of musical voices—classical through modern to contemporary—and a variety of musical moods.

Salvator Brotons led the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra

The result was entertaining, and although it didn’t make me question the usefulness of a concert formula many find tired (I’m conservative in this regard, I guess), it did raise questions about how we modernize and humanize it.

VSO: barbarous overdrive

VSO’s November 4 concert opened with a Gallic bit of fun from Hector Berlioz, his Roman Carnival Overture. It’s not a very interesting piece of music, and not as appropriate for a blustery northwest November evening as, say, a Shostakovich overture (or maybe a little Britten). But Berlioz knew how to write for orchestra and the VSO—especially English horn soloist Kyle Mustain—sounded good warming up on his music. Bassoons and trombones built to a big showy finish, whereupon music director Salvador Brotons, with his big corny smile, hand in the air, held out the last chord Bugs Bunny style, and then with a quick twist of his wrist snatched it out of the air. Silence, applause, a skip to the microphone.

Brotons introduced the evening’s soloist: Tbilisi-born, Vancouver-based pianist Dimitri Zhgenti, whom the Skyview Hall Auditorium audience welcomed with enthusiastic familiarity (after the concert, we caught him hanging around Skyview’s banal high school lobby, chatting with some local friends and thanking them for coming out). Zhgenti’s playing on Khachaturian’s hoary Concerto for Piano and Orchestra was balanced and careful. His sense of melody—oh so important in this score, driven as it is by folk song—was bold, attentive, and dynamic, but his overall approach was a matter of restraint and clarity, giving the composer’s vital voice the space to carry through on its own strength. Zhgenti didn’t need to oversell it, and so he didn’t, even during the long solo in the first movement, and the tasteful bombast made his performance that much more compellingly nuanced.

The orchestra, warmed up after the Berlioz overture, kicked into barbarous overdrive on the Khachaturian concerto. The strings played with a big fat sound all throughout, a rich, full tone, one of the band’s signature features. Principal oboist Alan Juza shone in the first movement’s playful secondary theme; bass clarinetist Barbara Heilmair gloomed it up all gorgeously throughout the second movement; and percussionist Dianna Hnatiw played the second movement’s keening Caucasian melody in unison with the high strings using a flexatone of all damned things — an impressive feat, I assure you; usually that part is played on a saw or omitted altogether, and it’s crazy difficult to nail individual pitches on either instrument.

High, sweet horns and low, booming brass ranged from grim pastorales to creepy circus chorales, that whole conflicted Soviet sound, song-like and nasty, twisted and heroic, modernism hiding under conservatism hiding under populism. The only problem with this concerto is that there’s really too much of it—this was Khachaturian’s first mature composition, after all, and probably could have benefitted from about a 10% reduction. But Zhgenti, Brotons, and the band sounded way too good for me to complain.

It was easy to hear why VSO chose Mendelssohn’s Symphony No.3 in A minor (“Scottish”) to represent the evening’s symphonic portion. The whole group sounded simply grand, well-balanced and pleasant, no real fireworks but a lovely late autumnal feast of melody scattered across four uninterrupted movements like song thrushes in a wild strawberry patch.

Principal clarinetist (and VSO executive director) Igor Shakhman took a spry solo in the second movement and a delicate duet with bassoon principal Margaret McShea in the fourth. All the strings had to do was show up and play Mendelssohn’s lovely melodies and Scotch snap rhythms, and that’s what they did, with total grace and more of that yummy tone. VSO’s horn section—solidly wonderful, another of the band’s best features—owned the symphony’s second half: horns and bassoons and oboes, horns and cellos, and a high hunting hymn at the end. I don’t like to compare this orchestra too directly with the more famous one across the river, but this horn section is one area where Vancouver has a definite edge over Portland.

As long we’re on the subject, though, here’s another nice thing VSO does that contributes to its community spirit: they have a video production crew filming the whole concert, with at least eight cameras, mixing and editing on the fly, broadcasting it to screens on either side of the stage, hopping between sections and soloists, the sort of thing we’re more accustomed to seeing at sporting events and megachurch services. What really impressed me is how well the video people seemed to know the scores, highlighting whoever happened to be playing in each moment, stitching it all spontaneously together with a professional touch that reminded me of the live television directors who produce shows like Saturday Night Live and The Oscars.

Oregon Symphony: symphonic dances

It was the 1st of December, and guest conductor Eivind Gullberg Jensen was making his U.S. professional debut with the Oregon Symphony Orchestra. This evening’s overture: Exquisite Corpse by Swedish composer Anders Hillborg, whom Jensen described as “a good friend of mine.” Jensen related how he had met the composer after hearing Esa-Pekka Salonen perform Hillborg’s Liquid Marble, and talked about how Hillborg started on synthesizers before getting into Igor Stravinsky and György Ligeti. To explain the work’s title (and bizarre formal construction), Jensen described the surrealist party game and its simple rules: first you fold a paper in thirds, hiding each section; each artist contributes a portion of the drawing without seeing the others, connecting their contributions via the paper’s folds; “then,” Jensen said, “you open the paper and wow—this Frankenstein thing.” The same process can be used to create anything, even cartoons, and the idea of applying it to a modern orchestral work is simply fascinating.

Hillborg created his exquisite corpse composition by himself, though, which to me seems like a big mistake (and, frankly, sounded like one). I’ve heard other fine music from the Swedish post-modernist, and although Exquisite Corpse wasn’t bad, it was very much more of the same old colorfully orchestrated, non-melodic, post-modern soundscapey business which has largely been the OSO’s preferred species of living composition this season (see also: Balch, Norman, et al).

There were many wonderful moments, though, especially when Hillborg showed off his synthy cred with an additive synthesis approach, shifting the color of a single tone through reorchestration and the gradual accumulation of competing tones, Ligeti’s micropolyphony reduced to its droniest foundations. The ever-intrepid OSO brass carved out some sweet swells (similar to the reverse tape effect in Hillborg’s Brass Quintet), while the strings and winds trotted out their reliable Rite of Spring chops for a bunch of janky chords and wild wheedling doodles. The goofy-looking tuba-like cimbasso and the tall, lanky contrabass clarinet were a nice touch, and contributed a jolly basement rumble to the general Frankenstein fracas. The best bit was a big groovy passage for percussion—timpani, toms, woodblocks, congas, and a nice big concert bass drum, locking in on almost dubby groove like some rave remix of West Side Story.

The composer apparently feels this is a good introduction to his work, calling it “fairly easy listening”, although personally I’d recommend that punchy Brass Quintet (or the songs he recently composed for Renée Fleming) over this piece.

British composer William Walton was evidently surprised to receive a commission to write a concerto for Jascha Heifetz, and reportedly kept making it harder and harder until he felt it was sufficiently herculean. The music itself is pretty good, but the solo violin is really the only interesting thing about it. Mid-20th-century classical music comes in two main flavors: the Darmstadt horror movie sound we associate with Milton Babbitt and Pierre Boulez, and the Ravelesque, neo-classical, folkishly impressionistic sound we associate with Aaron Copland and Edward Elgar. A few Brits managed to chart a third course between these (Britten comes to mind), but Walton’s sound is pretty solidly in the later camp, with all the goods and bads that come with it: extended tertian chords out of a Bill Evans solo, a sweet pastoral melody, a sideways waltz. Overall it’s a pleasant but bland sound, not so unlike the cinematic realm Walton derided. When the composer—having already composed a few scores for Olivier and the like—was deciding whether to score the film of Pygmalion or take the Heifetz commission, he wrote, “It all boils down to this: whether I’m to become a film composer or a real composer.” (Honegger got the job).

Violinist James Ehnes killed it: molto cantabile on Walton’s pretty melodies; sweet and slidey on the high parts, flashy and raw on the low; sawing away on fast, meter-changing, 16th-note fiddle riffage straight out of “The Orange Blossom Special;” whipping out rapid chains of daring double-stop riffs and thrilling trills, beautifully tuned and dashed off with a bouncy insouciance. It’s no surprise that Ehnes would play the concerto with such confidence: he recorded it a couple years ago, on a disc with Korngold and Barber.

The OSO’s Symphonic Selection for that concert wins this week’s game. Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances are glowingly melodic, rhythmically exciting, fun and dramatic and just beautiful as hell; as with the other Great Russians the OSO performs so smashingly (Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky), Rachmaninoff’s music is packed with heartfelt, eccentric melodies and odd, colorfully late-Romantic harmonies. The reliable woodwind principals all got some fine moments: solos for oboist Martin Hébert and clarinetist James Shields; a longish passage for flutist Martha Long, and a later trio between Long, piccolo stalwart Zachariah Galatis, and Michael Roberts on a xylophone; a trio of Hébert, bassoonist Carin Miller Packwood, and the infamous river-crossing english horn player Kyle Mustain.

Concertmaster Sarah Kwak took a fine solo in the second movement; the OSO strings as a whole, rich as Croesus and twice as sweet, are always so fine on this type of strange, beautiful music. There was a moment in the first movement when the first violins and cellos, accompanied by piano and harp, gave us some of the most beautiful melodic playing of the year. That melody recurred a few times in the violins and cellos, with varied accompaniment, and it made my evening.

Ah, but we all know that the OSO’s best section is that riserfull of trumpets and trombones (and occasional tuba). Throughout the Symphonic Dances they swelled spooky chords, heraldic and weird (and a little like this bit from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet), the septet playing first with mutes and later—strikingly—without, ramping up their customary magnificence to ever higher peaks of glory.

Ehnes & Jensen backstage

Jensen conducted from memory, graceful and varied in his bouncy dance feels and rubato waltz time, dramatic but restrained, dancing with the composer, letting Rachmaninoff’s deep voice rumble out. Throughout the ersatz dance symphony, and especially during the complicated final movement, you could hear that this music was written for a particular orchestra and conductor—Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Eugene Ormandy, one of Rachmaninoff’s most dedicated champions. The work was also the composer’s last, and as such had something of a life review quality (not unlike Shosty’s allusive Viola Sonata, which we got to hear Kenji Bunch and Monica Ohuchi play with Fear No Music last year).

This exuberantly morbid quality was especially notable in Rachmaninoff’s quotes from his own All-Night Vigil (“Blagosloven yesi, Gospodi”) and a suspiciously joyful setting of the Dies irae theme (also quoted throughout his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini), the famous plainchant tune recast not in a major mode but cunningly reharmonized for a happier, more heroic sound. It might not have been a Perfectly Ordinary symphony, but the emotional journey was symphonically epic, and Jensen—leading a group that excels at exactly this sort of journey—led the way with epic grace. Here’s hoping we hear them together again.

Breaking the Standard Mold

In both concerts, the clear winner was Melody: Rachmaninoff’s chant tunes, Khachaturian’s folk songs, Mendelssohn’s more-or-less completely non-Scottish themes, all the lovely solos from around the orchestra, and of course that deft flexatone earworm. Grandpa—the compositional generation of Shostakovich and Bernstein—has been winning this one lately, and to these ears it’s simply because those guys cared more about melody than the kids these days seem to.

But that’s the best thing about performing a lot of different living composers, as both OSO and VSO have done with admirable dedication—it can give audiences a range of contemporary voices to choose from. Hearing composers as different as Hillborg, Norman, Balch, Kahane, Rogerson, Buetti, and so on is that such exposure moves us beyond a simplistic view of modern classical music (e.g. as uniformly good or bad) toward a more discriminating appreciation.

So I don’t mind telling you I prefer Kahane and Buetti over Norman and Balch by a country mile, but it’s good to have those other voices there. Partly that’s just for diversity’s sake (plenty of audients will disagree, perhaps strongly, with my assessment of Kahane vs. Norman); partly it’s because they’re all still pretty good (I’ll take Kahane over Norman but I’ll take either one over Walton); and partly it’s for the nakedly biased pro-contemporary reasons that we’ve already discussed in these pages here and there. And this is all just as true of semi-recent but post-corporeal composers like Khachaturian and Walton (and Grandpa Bernstein and Dedushka Shostakovich): the more we hear them, and the more of them we hear, the more readily we can judge them on their merits and not just on their stature and relevance.

What would be really smashing is if we started hearing even more living and contemporary composers poured into the standard mold. How about a concert featuring a Joan Tower overture, a Jennifer Higdon concerto, and a Florence Price symphony? Or an all Orthodox concert: Sofia Gubaidulina overture, John Tavener concerto, Arvo Pärt symphony?

What happens when the only thing old-fashioned about an orchestra concert is its format?

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, singer, percussionist, and editor 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.

  1. Dan Rasay says:

    Thanks Mr. Andrews – I’m genuinely curious what a non-old fashioned concert format would/could/should be. Thoughts?

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