Felix Mendelssohn

Oregon & Vancouver Symphony Orchestras: reanimating the exquisite corpse

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


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.