Yoga for the ears: Oregon Symphony’s “resurrection,” a new conductor, a new sound system, and Open Music with Kenji Bunch

David Danzmayr’s inaugural in-person season opens with Mahler, Bunch, Gabriela Lena Frank, and the massive “Constellation” sound system; Open Music finally commences at The Old Church

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The Oregon Symphony is preparing for a new era. Danzmayr’s name now lines the streets of the Metro, decorating the sides of buses and street lights. The new sound installation by Meyer Sound–called Constellation–has been announced more quietly, but is perhaps just as important as the new music director. Constellation promises to bring just as large a revolution in sound as Danzmayr: “[n]o matter where patrons are seated in the hall, they will experience the full warmth and quality of the multi-Grammy nominated Oregon Symphony and other ensembles, as they are meant to be heard.”

The musicians are also getting used to Danzmayr as a conductor. He’s a very talented conductor–that much is sure–but every conductor has their own style and approach. He seems to be preparing for a long tenure at the OSO, so the musicians will get to know him very well. The pomp and theatre of the conductor does serve a musical function: it helps the audience see the music through the conductor’s gestures. 

Opening Weekend

These were the first concerts with Danzmayr in the Schnitz. He decided to kick off the season with a goddamn Mahler symphony, which is a challenge for everyone involved: conductors, performers, audiences, sound system. Even I, a Mahler fanatic, lose patience with his music sometimes. It can be extremely demanding on performers and conductors to play for so long uninterrupted: you can fit an entire Haydn symphony into just one movement from a Mahler symphony. And this particular symphony, the Second, is a bit on-the-nose–this is in a sense the “resurrection” of the Oregon Symphony–but an effective one at that. 

Mahler took up most of the program, but the openers were just as important. Kenji Bunch’s new composition, Time In, is a whirlwind of clockwork percussion and ascending woodwind runs, an exciting overture for the Oregon Symphony’s season. I can also say that it was short and sweet, didn’t overstay its welcome, and had a nice jauntiness with some bluesy melodies and Copland-esque harmonies. The weekend shows gave us a chance to hear Bunch write for the orchestra once again. For more, check out the Oregon Symphony’s recording of his piece Aspects of an Elephant.

The other piece, Gabriella Lena Frank’s Elegia Andina, was much darker and slower, evoking the expansiveness of the Andean mountains with a contrasting middle section of pulsing violins in tight dissonances. Since Frank is a member of the Oregon Symphony’s Creative Alliance, we hope to be hearing much more from her in the coming years.

Frank and Bunch were the two light appetizers before the hearty meal Mahler presents for us. It’s unbalanced, sure, but any program with Mahler is bound to be unbalanced–you either admire his ambition or recoil at his pomposity. In the past, Carlos Kalmar opted to perform the entire symphony without an intermission, sometimes as the only piece on the program. Danzmayr did make the decision to perform the massive first movement before the intermission, splitting up the symphony, which is a welcome change–and one that Herr Mahler would approve of, since he composed the first movement years before the others and even considered making it a stand-alone tone poem called Totenfiere.

I’ve said a lot about the big names so far–composers, conductors, the like–but Mahler symphonies are real showcases for musicians as well. If there was an MVP group for this performance of the Second it has to be the Oregon Symphony’s fabulous brass section. Endurance is such an important part of playing brass and the most moving moments of the piece come from tender brass chorales in the last two movements. After playing for an hour, they then get to the most heart-wrenching passages of the symphony.  

And speaking of those heart-wrenching passages, the soloists–mezzo Sasha Cooke and soprano Susanna Phillips–gave two of the most affecting performances of the night. Oregon Repertory Singers and the Portland State University Chamber Choir sang the redemptive text of the final movements (read Daryl Browne’s profile here).

The performance was very good, especially considering the torrent of circumstances around it: a new conductor, a new sound to the hall, and the first concert in eighteen months. It was a bold start to this new era, and while there were a few hiccups (including an awkward moment with some noisy people outside the hall), the audience appeared to be won over.

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“Constellations” of sound

If you attended the performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony, you may have noticed how good the orchestra sounded. Besides the obvious–we have a really good orchestra–there is also the much-hyped Constellation acoustic system by Meyer Sound, installed over the last eighteen months.

Once, years ago, during an OSO performance of some piece that bored me–maybe Chopin’s Piano Concerto–I looked up and listened for the sound reverberating through the upper reaches of the hall. There was a strange stillness in the air, like smoke rising and having nowhere else to go. We can often forget that sound is in fact a physical phenomenon–it is our perception of changes in air pressure that move as waves. 

As soon as I walked into the hall at the pre-season press demonstration I noticed how quiet it was inside. It looks about as I remember it––though it has been over eighteen months since most of us have been there. Maybe the silence was the lack of people: we’re used to seeing the hall packed with crowds and alive with chatter and musicians warming up, and there were only a few dozen at the demonstration. But it still felt like the air in the hall was a bit different than before. 

The Schnitz also looks much the same both inside and out, but look closely and you will see dozens of speakers around the hall: eighty-six microphones, two hundred and ninety-three speakers, the second-largest in the US. Some are tiny, some larger, mostly the same tan color as their surroundings. Transparent panels appear on the walls behind the musicians, hiding more speakers behind them. Four tweeters stick out from the canopy, which would be the expensive balcony seats of another hall. Sitting in the middle or rear orchestra (the ones nearest the entrance), you can now see tiny dots on the low ceiling above you to compensate for that area’s naturally bad acoustics.

This time I didn’t get to hear from up in the cheap seats (from whence I saw Herbie Hancock play in high school), but I am assured it sounds just as good up there as anywhere else in the hall. Future concerts will tell.

It would be wrong to say that the pandemic was the driving force for the Meyer Sound installation. COVID-19 only accelerated what was already in progress: the project had been underway for years before, spurred on by Portland’5. I spoke to Colby Reade, Director of Communications at the M.J. Murdock Trust and Lorin Dunlop, Project Manager for the Arts at Murdock, who donated a significant portion ($750,000) of the budget for Constellation. “One of the silver linings is that [COVID] allowed for work to get done that wasn’t disruptive to a season,” Reade told me. Getting up to the top of the 120-foot ceiling of the Schnitz took a lot of time and effort. “Just the scaffolding alone was an engineering feat.”

Anyone who played in a high school pep band and had to perform in a gymnasium knows that concrete boxes have terrible acoustics. Concert halls, however, should have as clear a sound as possible to make the music sound beautiful. Gregorian chant and other vocal music sounds best in expansive cathedrals with tons of natural reverb; jazz sounds best in small clubs with heavy curtains so you can hear every detail; rock music sounds best on a loud PA system. Likewise, classical music has its own sense of space: the ideal concert hall. Without completely tearing down the building and starting from scratch, we can’t change the size and shape of the room, nor its materials. Each change has to work with the existing acoustics of the hall.

The nice thing about this new system is that it compensates for the many deficiencies in the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, since it was never designed for concert music. It opened in 1928 as a vaudeville theater before becoming the Paramount Theater two years later. The Oregon Symphony moved to the hall in 1984, the same year it became christened the Arlene Schnitzer Concert hall (because if you’re gonna donate ten million dollars to restore a building, you may as well get your name on it). Other residents of the Schitz will benefit from the upgrade, too, from Wilco to Iliza Schelinger, since the reverb can be dialed in for bands, comedians and other events as necessary.

The thing with the new acoustics system is that reverb is like cologne: if everyone notices it, you’re using too much. The effect on most listeners will be subtle, but noticeable if you pay attention. The hall sounded great in the performance: there was a fullness to the orchestra that was normally missing from the seats in the upper orchestra, which previously could get into that concrete-box territory.

At the demonstration musicians in the symphony, including clarinetist James Shields and trumpeter David Bamonte, said they can perform with more nuance than before since they can hear on stage better–they used to have to play as loudly as possible just to be heard. That change comes from those hard-to-notice panels surrounding the stage, the various microphones and speakers around the hall and the thick curtains that allow for more control of the hall’s acoustics. 

Opening music

Bunch’s big weekend extended into the following Wednesday at The Old Church, with the first of a new series called Open Music. The goal is to have the OSO host more intimate and informal concerts that stagger performances with discussions of the guests and their music. Bunch’s show opened with him and host (OSO creative director Gabriel Kahane) performing the folk ballad “Wayfaring Stranger.” 

The concert program showed a wide breadth of music: Hawa Diabaté’s transcriptions of Malian hand clapping songs and inti figgis-vizueta’s string quartet Imago shared space with Bartók, Debussy, Feldman and Bunch’s own compositions. The other performers were drawn from the ranks of the Oregon Symphony, including principal violist Charles Noble.

Bunch also casually mentioned how he participated in the first performance and recording of Feldman’s six-hour-long Second String Quartet with the Fluxus Quartet. For nerds of the American avant-garde (we exist!), that is quite the achievement. At the Old Church we heard one of Feldman’s mercifully short pieces, which Bunch described as “yoga for the ears.” 

Future Open Music concerts will feature Missy Mazzolli in January and Creative Alliance member Nathalie Joachim with violinist Pekka Kuusisto in June. The other nice thing about these concerts is their $20 General Admission price, which makes buying tickets a breeze and sitting by your friends just as easy. 

The Oregon Symphony will also be live-streaming six concerts over their season. The streams will come with extra perks, and are priced at $15 for one concert or $69 for all six. The concerts they offer through live-stream include the premiere, as well as the concerts they anticipate to be popular–meaning the biggest names, Beethoven and such. 

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