Dmitri Shostakovich

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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