jeffrey biegel

Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Oregon Symphony reviews: making old music new

On a single May weekend, two Portland orchestras tried different approaches to renewing a venerable musical form

“All music was new to start out with,” said the Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra executive director Betsy Hatton from the stage steps at First United United Methodist Church.

I can appreciate her gentle chiding: it’s a rare thing to go to an orchestra concert with any new music at all on the bill. So it was a pleasant surprise to attend a concert where an Oregon orchestra performed works by not one but two living composers.

Steven Byess led Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra’s season-ending concert.

First, though, concertmaster Dawn Carter and director-conductor Steven Byess warmed us up on some old music: Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. I had somehow never heard the PCSO before, and I was immediately impressed by their balanced sound: spry and nuanced and playful and a little melancholy. The strings sounded especially crisp and articulate, warm and expressive but not washy (at least, not where I was sitting). My heart warmed to the lovely horn playing, a rare treat, while the oboe’s insouciant tone on some of the bluer melodicles reminded me of just how much Gershwin owed to Debussy. Principal flutist Liberty Broillet nailed that difficult and oh-so-tonally-important quiet C#-centered motive that recurs throughout the little tone poem like the titular faun’s pan pipe (not for nothing is that C# one of the flute’s most difficult notes).

I was struck by how freshly old the music sounded, if I may be forgiven the paradox: I’ve heard this piece hundreds of times, and while it never sounds new, it never really sounds old either. PCSO made it sound appropriately timeless. Colorful, dreamy, luxuriant, detailed Debussy is a composer much better suited to live listening than recordings, and by the end of I was all chilled out and ready for some New Music.

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