High Desert Museum Creations of Spirit Bend Oregon

Stepping up with Deanna Tham

Associate conductor Tham makes a stunning concert hall debut with the Oregon Symphony.

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Oregon Symphony Associate Conductor Deanna Tham. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Oregon Symphony Associate Conductor Deanna Tham. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Deanna Tham made a jaw-dropping, spectacular concert hall debut with Oregon Symphony’s concert January 14 at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. After an outdoor debut last September at the symphony’s Waterfront Park appearance, and an indoor debut conducting Hocus Pocus in October, this was Tham’s first time conducting one of Oregon Symphony’s “subscription series” concerts–classical music, that is.

The orchestra’s newly appointed associate conductor displayed terrifically clear stickwork with an emotionally engaging style to lead a challenging program of Bernstein and Stravinsky, plus a rarely heard piece by Mel Bonis and the U.S. premiere of Vijay Iyer’s Cello Concerto. On top of that, Tham replaced Marin Alsop, who was originally scheduled but canceled with enough lead time for Tham to step up – and man, did she ever!

Vijay Iyer’s concerto was commissioned by the Oregon Symphony and a consortium of orchestras as part of New Music USA’s Amplifying Voices program; the result, Human Archipelago: Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, is a response to climate change and its effect on human migration. Iyer has been accoladed with numerous awards, a 2013 MacArthur Fellowship, and a Grammy nomination–primarily for his work in jazz, which includes 25 recordings.

Five members of the orchestra, arranged in an arc to the center and right-hand side of the conductor, depicted a group of travelers who have made an arduous journey to an unfamiliar country. Cellist Inbal Segev–the featured soloist–served (I think) as a mediator between the travelers (clarinetist Mark Dubac, flutist Martha Long, violinists Keiko Araki and Ron Blessinger, and violist Amanda Grimm) and the orchestra, which represented to some extent the country and culture that might or might not welcome the travelers. 

The orchestra initially expressed some turbulence and tension (the climate heating up perhaps), while the travelers had phrases that seemed rather meek and mild. The majority of passages for Segev, including her exposed solos, were in the cello’s mid to lower register. There just wasn’t all that much agitation between the travelers and the orchestra for Segev to mediate–but it did seem, at times, that she built a calm and soothing line that may have subtly reconciled two groups that were essentially at odds. 

The end of the piece did have a bit of a sense of resolution and harmony, but just barely. It seemed that it would have been more striking if some of the travelers would have come from the brass section and then made more of a ruckus, so that there would have been more sonic feathers to smooth out. That would have given listeners the sense of a journey, or more of a journey than what I heard on Saturday.

Tham told the audience, in her introductory remarks to Mel Bonis’ “Trois Femmes de Légende” (“Three Women of Legend”), that she had discovered the piece while doing some research. Inspired by the stories of Ophelia, Salome, and Cleopatra, the music of Bonis, who lived primarily in Paris from 1858-1937, was lush and impressionistic but also unfussy and not sentimental.

The opening movement, inspired by Shakespeare’s Ophelia, was buoyed by an ebb and flow of rich sounds. The harp in particular could be easily heard whenever the instrumentation became sparse, and the English horn evoked a wisp of melancholy and tragedy. The tambourine helped to elicit the story of Salome in the second movement. But I was fooled by the sharp accent punch at the end of the piece, which presumably referenced John the Baptist but made me think of the asp that bit Cleopatra. Her story was embodied in the third movement with high, almost piercing tones from the piano and a slightly exotic theme. A leisurely passage made me think of her barge on the Nile. It all ended quietly, which was too bad. A sonic crescendo would have made the piece more memorable.

The Overture to Bernstein’s Candide received a frothy and boisterous performance under Tham’s baton. It opened the concert, and showed a glimpse of what was in store for the audience at the end when Tham uncorked a glorious performance of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. She impeccably cued everything in the piece, eliciting the enchanted garden, the undaunted hero, the lovely princesses, the magical Firebird, and freedom from the evil King Kashchei. The highlight was the playing of principal bassoonist Carin Miller, who created the most mysterious, haunting, and almost misty lullabye toward the end of the piece. Even PSU Symphony conductor Ken Selden remarked to me after the concert that Miller’s playing was the best that he had ever heard in that piece. 

What really floored me was the finale when Tham started to make some really big gestures. I thought that she had overcommitted herself too early and would have nowhere to go. Boy was I wrong! She came up with more emphatic gestures that changed and enhanced and made the sound grow. It was incredible! It was as if she put her hands in a wall socket and electrified the hall!

Shouting and applauding wildly, the audience roared with gusto. Tham came back to the stage and gestured for the orchestra to stand, but following concertmaster Sarah Kwak’s lead, the musicians stayed seated so that the acclaim was focused on Tham. That’s just about the highest compliment that any conductor can receive. 

I hope that Tham will lead another subscription concert in the very near future. I have talked with a number of concertgoers who witnessed the performance, and we all want to see her on the podium again. We have to find out if she can blow us away with another program. I am eager to give you a full report when that happens.

Oregon Symphony Associate Conductor Deanna Tham. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Oregon Symphony Associate Conductor Deanna Tham. Photo courtesy of the artist.
James Bash enjoys writing for The Oregonian, The Columbian, Classical Voice North America, Opera, and many other publications. He has also written articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition. He received a fellowship to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera, and is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.
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