Haydn

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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45th Parallel: expanding universe

Under new cooperative leadership, Portland organization kicks off ambitious 10th anniversary season this weekend with new ensembles and diverse programming

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

This year, 45th Parallel goes through a double shift, as the Portland-based classical music organization enters its 10th season and adds “Universe” to its appellation, reflecting a broadening of its roster and repertoire. This happens just as founder and long-time artistic director Greg Ewer passes the reins to his old pal and fellow Oregon Symphony violinist, former Third Angle artistic director Ron Blessinger, now 45th Parallel interim executive director.

The Universe comprises four distinct chamber groups—two string quartets, a wind quintet, and a percussion duo—who come together as a fifth group, the conductorless chamber orchestra Helios Camerata. They are, for now, all Oregon Symphony players. The Gemini Project is nothing more, nothing less, than OSO’s principal and co-principal timpanists; the five players of the Arcturus Quintet are likewise drawn from the OSO’s stellar wind sections, all of them principals or assistant principals.

The expanded 45th Parallel

Mousai ReMix (not to be confused with a similarly named Portland winds and piano ensemble) has, for the last six seasons, specialized in mostly conventional string quartet literature: Mendelssohn, Mozart, Prokofiev, Debussy, and Ravel, plus gobs of the perennial B&S Team (Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok, Schubert, Shostakovich, Schumann). The other string quartet in 45th’s constellation, Pyxis Quartet, is well familiar to Arts Watch readers: it’s the former Third Angle String Quartet, the same crew who have given us such loving performances of Glass and Reich and so on over the last few years, now riding a different parallel since first violinist Blessinger’s migration.

This season’s musical selections are, as always, all over the place, a feature microcosmically exemplified by Friday’s season opening Big Bang concert. Mousai ReMix will play a bit of middle-period Beethoven and Arcturus Quintet will play some early Carter, both good examples of embracing tradition while challenging it. Gemini Project will perform a duet composed by Robert Marino for himself and his drum corps bass buddy, a perfectly twinsy showcase for OSO pals Jon Greeney and Sergio Carreno. Pyxis will play a bit of dance music by Aaron Jay Kernis, the “Double Triple Gigue Fugue” finale from his second quartet. The second half showcases the fourteen-member Helios Camerata, an “experiment in democratic music making” composed of the members of all four groups, coalescing to play old music by Haydn and Rossini alongside newer works by Britten and Peruvian composer Jimmy López (best known for his Renee Fleming Initiative commissioned opera Bel Canto).

The whole season is like that: music from all across space and time, sometimes unified by theme but mainly unified by the organization’s democratic curatorial process and the findings of Ewer’s “musical laboratory.” The four smaller groups star in a pair of double concerts at The Old Church in southwest Portland, one in November and another in February. The binary concerts are a nice touch, I think: hour-long shows, back-to-back in the same venue with a half-hour break between. In November, Arcturus will perform works by Barber, Higdon, and Irving Fine; later that evening, Gemini will perform duos by Reich, Akiho, Peter Klatzow, and Fredrick Andersson, plus a new work by Carreno (on the event page hilariously titled “Serge piece”).

Mousai ReMix

In February, Mousai ReMix celebrates Black History Month with works by Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Coleridge-Taylor, Florence Beatrice Price, and Daniel Bernard Roumain. Pyxis Quartet will premiere I Spat in the Eye of Hate and Lived, an evening of commissioned works by local composers Kenji Bunch, Texu Kim, Bonnie Miksch, and Nicholas Yandell accompanying new poetry by percussionist Micah Fletcher, survivor of last year’s infamous TriMet stabbing incident. Helios closes the season at Trinity Episcopal Church with an evening of Richard Strauss, a program Blessinger characterized as “a lot of German food.”

ArtsWatch spoke with Blessinger and Ewer by phone. Their answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Bach Fest: an ace in the mule

A pair of historically informed concerts from the Big Names of the Concert Hall display the stubborn pleasures of keeping things elemental

EUGENE – I once spent a day at the mule races. They were a lot like the horse races, except more … eccentric. A mule race, I discovered to my delight, is a singularly unforgettable experience, unpredictable and unrepeatable in its essence: like snowflakes, no two mule races can ever be alike. The animals seem comical, but in a serious way, with a strength and power and sheer cussedness all their own. A nobility, too: a mule is a mule, and not an imitation horse, and it’s here to make sure you know it. A mule is happy to go where you want to go, as long as where you want to go is where it wants to go, too, and that makes the task of jockeying one of these sturdy contrarians seem like an attempt to tame an intransigent force with a flexible straw. It can be a major accomplishment simply to get the mule pointed in the right direction and focused on actually crossing the finish line. When you manage it with speed and style as well, it’s a triumph.

The memory came galloping back on Sunday afternoon as I was watching and listening to Andrew Clark’s mastery of his own particular mule at the Oregon Bach Festival in Eugene. Clark, an Englishman who is now principal horn with the Vancouver Island Symphony in British Columbia, was straddling a cantankerous coil of brass in a program of Beethoven and Mozart, including Beethoven’s 1800 Sonata in F Major for Horn and Piano, Op. 17. Even the modern horn is a touchy beast, fully capable of untoward surprises. Clark was playing a valveless period instrument, the kind that Mozart and Beethoven would have been familiar with, where embouchure is everything and you change keys by adding or subtracting a section of tubing. The sound is soft and burnished and impetuous, a wayward gambol through the woods on the back of a beast that is insistent on making its independence known, and if it sometimes nods its head toward the side of the path, Clark’s quiet and mellifluous command of it constituted both an adventure and a triumph.

Pianoforte virtuoso Robert Levin and Berwick Academy director Rachel Podger. Photos courtesy Oregon Bach Festival

Pianoforte virtuoso Robert Levin and Berwick Academy director Rachel Podger. Photos courtesy Oregon Bach Festival

The program, in the comfortably classical and resonant Beall Concert Hall on the University of Oregon campus, was called Viennese Masters III: Quintets for Piano and Winds, and it featured in addition to Clark some fellow masters of period instruments: Debra Nagy on oboe, Eric Hoeprich on clarinet, bassoonist Marc Vallon, and fortepianist Robert Levin. The sound they produced was winsome, balanced, light, and quick, with the fluid deliberation of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Throughout the performance, too, was the visual evidence of the sheer amount of labor it takes to keep these antique-style sound vessels going: Clark tapping his horn and disengaging sections for the occasional shakedown of spittle; Hoeprich elegantly running a cloth through the length of his clarinet to clean it out. Occasional pauses between movements made it possible to perform these instrumental ablutions with a minimum of disruption. We’re so used to the larger sound of the late Romantic and modern eras (let alone the plugged-in decibels of contemporary popular music) that the woodier, breathier, more organic, intimate and delicately balanced sound of period instruments can surprise us and shift our expectations in fascinating ways even decades after the period performance movement began.

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