Chamber Music Northwest Summer Festival Portland Oregon

“What of odes? What of joy?”: Beethoven, Berg, and Gabriela Lena Frank in Oregon Symphony’s season closer

Danzmayr steers the ‘Ninth’ into the fast lane; Georgia Jarman sings ‘Seven Early Songs’ gorgeously; OSO Creative Alliance member Frank reimagines Beethoven interacting with indigenous Peruvian traditions.

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danzmayr
David Danzmayr.

It was great to see a nearly full house at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on June 13 for the final concert of the Oregon Symphony’s classical season (this performance is available as a livestreamed concert). Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony proved an excellent draw and also a fitting choice with which to close out David Danzmayr’s first season as music director.

And the torrid pace that Danzmayr set out in each movement pushed Beethoven’s masterpiece into the fast lane. The Ninth usually takes about 70 minutes to play, but the Oregon Symphony’s performance clocked in at and even 60–and that included time to bring in the choir and the soloists as well as retune the orchestra at the beginning of the third movement. The break allowed the performance to transition quickly from the third into the fourth movement.

I am not against fleetness, but the music had no chance to breathe. Phrases didn’t linger even one iota. The stately third movement, “Adagio molto e cantabile,” was not restful and had little cantabile at all. The violins got buried by the brass at times in the first and fourth movements. The momentum leading up to the final measures of the piece was so hurried that the exciting whirlwind of the finale never materialized. 

The quickness also disrupted the sublime quality of the “Ode to Joy” theme in the fourth movement. Fortunately, baritone Reginald Smith Jr. sang with ample, beautiful stentorian quality; soprano Georgia Jarman and mezzo-soprano Siena Licht Miller were equally thrilling; tenor Joshua Dennis didn’t have the vocal heft necessary to match his colleagues. 

The Oregon Repertory Singers and Portland State University Chamber Choir, prepared by Ethan Sperry, suffered from balance issues. The women had enough power to hurdle the relentless high notes, but the men needed more volume with the heights and with vocal presence. For example, the “Cherub steht vor Gott” and the “Seid umschlungen, Millionen” needed way more dynamic force.

The blitzing speed didn’t hinder the musicians from playing accurately and passionately. Alicia Waite magically floated her horn solo, and Zachariah Galatis excelled with the piccolo. The orchestra delivered an astounding display of their virtuosic technical chops, and the audience loved it all, responding at the end with a standing ovation. 

Earlier that evening

On the first half of the program, the orchestra and Jarman gave a sterling performance of Alban Berg’s Seven Early Songs, which featured poems by German poets including Rainer Maria Rilke. The first number, “Nacht” (Night), created a lush and intoxicating soundscape with ominous overtones that invited the listener to contemplate solitude, but ended with the warning to watch out. The second, “Schilflied” (Reed Song), hinted at love lost and sadness while hearing the sound of reeds near a pond. The third, “Die Nachtigall” (The Nightingale), elegantly tied the lovely melody of that bird with a woman’s voice and roses. Next came “Traumgekrönt” (Crowned with Dreams) – Rilke’s poem – in which the narrator dreams of losing his soul to a lover. Jarman deliciously held the last note a long, long time, feathering it away with minimum vibrato until it vanished. The fifth number, “Im Zimmer” (In the Room) painted a heartwarming scene of contented love. This was followed by “Liebesode” (Ode to Love), which also evoked the wonder of love and longing. The last song, “Sommertage” (Summer Days), topped off the set with a romantic vision of blessed love. All of this was gorgeously sung by Jarman.

The concert began with the West Coast premiere of Pachamama Meets an Ode by Gabriela Lena Frank, who is part of the Oregon Symphony’s Creative Alliance team. Written for chorus and orchestra–using the same instrumentation as Beethoven’s Ninth–Frank’s Pachamama Meets an Ode explored the idea of Beethoven meeting an indigenous painter from the Cusco School, a Roman Catholic artistic tradition based in Cusco, Peru. The text called into question the European conquest of South American lands and the destruction of habitats both flora and fauna. “Pachamama” refers to Mother Earth in Spanish-speaking Latin America.

Gabriela Lena Frank in 2012. Photo by Mariah Tauger.

Franks’ music enhanced the text which was sung with excellent diction and blend by The Oregon Repertory Singers and Portland State University Chamber Choir. The piece had an arresting mix of harmony and dissonance that was underlined at times by choral humming. The ending lingered hauntingly with two questions: What of odes? What of joy?

Speaking of joy, in his preface to the concert, the orchestra’s president and CEO Scott Showalter, announced that the orchestra will give the annual Waterfront Concert on September 3. So, you can mark your calendars now for this festive and free event. Freude indeed!

James Bash enjoys writing for The Oregonian, The Columbian, Classical Voice North America, Opera, and many other publications. He has also written articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition. He received a fellowship to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera, and is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.

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