Aaron Copland

Oregon Symphony: borrowed batons

Guest conductors lead orchestra’s October concerts

Guest conductor Jun Märkl dashed out onto the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall stage, cueing the snare drummers mid-stride as he hopped up onto the podium and launched the oldest orchestra west of the Mississippi—your Oregon Symphony Orchestra—into our national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The audience and most of the orchestra got to their feet, hats in hands, everyone singing or at least humming. Classy move, Märkl.

Märkl continued the October 1st concert with a few words about the OSO’s world premiere of its latest commission, Chamber Music by Living Composer Katherine Balch. “It’s a special piece,” Märkl said. “This orchestra is very committed to new music and to creating new music.” He gestured to the full orchestra and joked about the seemingly contradictory title: “you may wonder why we have such a big orchestra here.” Balch’s music, he explained, is meant to convey a chamber-like intimacy in which we might “come together and discuss certain things, whispering to each other.”

Märkl also issued a light-hearted warning: “there will be no melody, but very beautiful sound experiences, very unique.” A good warning for an audience which is adventurous, sure, but generally in more of a Messiaen sort of direction; Balch’s music was sparse and, as promised, amelodic. Yet it was a compelling amelodicism, a shimmering sonic blanket quilted from microswaths of richly colored acoustic fabrics, harmonic in an aggressively non-functional way, halfway between the John Adamses. Waves of dazzling brass, swelling out from muted trumpets and trombone glissandi, surging across the stage to the horns. A sine tone emerged from a pair of intent trumpets and threaded its way around the orchestra through wavering winds and spectralist strings. The sudden ending was ruined, perhaps, by an overhanging cymbal (quickly muted).

Märkl’s conducting style was equally well-suited to Haydn as to Balch: a light, precise, attentive approach that had him leaning into each section, carefully communicating dynamics and character around the orchestra. It paid off early in the short symphony (No. 83, aka “The Hen”) with an exquisite, Westworldy theme that shimmered around the first movement (Haydn’s myriad brief symphonies are packed with such delights). The two of these back-to-back are just about everything I love about this orchestra: cool, stylish, brave, confident, afraid of no music new or old.

Jun Märkl conducted the Oregon Symphony. Photo: Christiane Höhne

Copland’s piano concerto opens with a bold, dissonant brass fanfare—that Big Iconic American Sound—and the OSO brass delivered the gooseflesh as they always do. Soloist Inon Barnatan came out all Americana with a clustery, Cowellesque solo and a bunch of boogie-woogie business, his playing loudly graceful, never thundering but never timid. The concerto’s overtly Gershwinesque moments are all so much cleaner than actual Gershwin—that familiar whitewashed Copland aura—but Barnatan grooved it up and dressed it down. Winds and brass got into weird Dixieland multi-soloist passages, super corny stuff but played well, all of it no doubt directed (in jest perhaps) Bernsteinward. If it had been just a little dirtier, if the folkishness and syncopations had gone a little further in a Khachaturian/Bartók direction, this might have been a truly great piano concerto. Ah, but then luscious strings bring back that tortured tritoney melody and a recurring, distinctly non-jazzy clarinet solo, the return of the brass all massive and Milhaudy—that’s when we hear the true Copland, the modernist hiding inside the populist.

Barnatan’s solo encore blew me away, an inventive set of variations on Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” the timeless tune emerging slowly from behind mega-fast flourishes and cascades of Messiaenic post-tonal strangeness.

Inon Barnatan performed with the Oregon Symphony

It’s easy to pick on poor Brahms, born in the wrong decade, always looking over his shoulder, always fighting the future, perched perilously on Beethoven’s shoulders, invariably building better than he knew. He’s at his best when he can match his knack for witty musical ingenuity to his heartfelt gemütlichkeit and sublimated sturm und drang, which is why his symphonies are better than his piano music (#sorrynotsorry). Brahms champion Eduard Hanslick said of the Fourth Symphony, “it is like a dark well; the longer we look into it, the more brightly the stars shine back.”

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Oregon Symphony: reaching for the stars

Orchestra's season-opening concerts range from 'Star Wars' to 'Star Trek' to a classical music superstar

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).

The Oregon Symphony performed the score to ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’ while the film played.

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.

Star Wars

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.

Norman Huynh is the OSO’s Associate Conductor. Photo: Richard Kolbell.

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.

Huynh’s conductor’s score for ‘Star Wars.’

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.

Renée Fleming

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.

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