Thursday, March 26, 2015

News and updates

Heilwig von Königslöw and Aisslinn Nosky
Kudos to Kenji Bunch, who is working on a big piece for orchestra and chorus entitled "Symphony No 3 "Dream Songs." It is a commission from the Grant Park Music Festival and will receive its world premiere by the Grant Park Orchestra under the direction of Carlos Kalmar on June 19th and 20th. Here is a link to the announcement in the Grant Park Music Festival program. (Thanks to Bob Priest for finding this nugget.)

The Chicago Tribune reports that acoustic piano sales are starting to rise again after hitting bottom during the recession.

A week or so ago, the Los Angeles Times reported that Los Angeles Philharmonic's music director Gustav Dudamel and his wife, Eloisa Maturen, are filing for divorce. They have been married for nine years and have a three-year old son.

I have written profiles of the 13 winners of Artist Fellowships from the Oregon Arts Commission. This includes composers David Crumb and Rebecca Oswald. The profiles are short and sweet, and you can find them on the OAC website here. For the OAC, I also wrote an article on the 2015 Fisherpoets event in Astoria, which you can read here.

I am currently in Boston to attend the Handel + Haydn Society's performance of Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" at Symphony Hall tomorrow evening. On Saturday evening, I will hear the Boston Symphony play the world premiere of Michael Gandolfi's"Ascending Light" for organ and orchestra and Mahler's Sixth Symphony. Both pieces will be conducted by Andris Nelsons. The performances and several associated panel discussions are sponsored by ArtsBoston and hosted by the H+H Society and the BSO as part of  writer's institute that features a few members of the Music Critic Association of North America. Tonight I was at a soirée underwritten the H+H where I met its artistic director Harry Christophers and concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky. Christophers is from England and Nosky is from Vancouver, B.C. The photo above shows her and her teacher Heilwig von Königslöw.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Oregon Symphony expands on sonic textures with Ehnes and Märkl

James Ehnes - © Benjamin Ealovega
From small and intimate to extravagant and exposed, the Oregon Symphony traversed a long distance in its most recent concert on Sunday evening (March 22) at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Starting with the gentle quietude of Toshio Hosokawa’s “Blossoming II,” followed by mercurial yet elegant First Violin Concerto of Sergei Prokofiev, which featured James Ehnes, and concluding with the wild ride of hector Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique,” the program had a lot to offer. It also played to the strength of guest conductor Jun Märkl, who elicited a huge spectrum of sound from the orchestra.

In his playing of the Prokofiev, Ehnes combined flawless technique with the superior artistry to create marvelous views of the music’s landscape. Lyrical sweetness, grace yet rapid runs, sleek glissandos, and buzzy tones were part of the sonic journey. Everything seemed to flow effortlessly from Ehnes’ fingers. His transitions from slow to fast and back again and his command of passages in the uppermost range were thrilling. Near the end of the piece, he spun a series of high-wire trills while the orchestra supported with a clocklike tick tock.

Ehnes’ performance could only be topped by a show stopper, so that’s what the orchestra did by uncorking an intensely engaging interpretation of Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique.” Led by Märkl’s graceful and almost balletic conducting style, the orchestra was on fire, playing with passionate intensity. Attacks, cutoffs, sforzandos, crescendos, decrescendos, accelerandos, ritardando, and everything in between was outstanding. Highlights of the performance included, the exchange of phrases between the English horn (Kyle Mustain) and oboe in the balcony (Martin Hébert), the enthusiastic pounding the timpani and bass drums, the lilting waltzes of the strings, the jocular march to the scaffold with the woodwinds in the lead, the grumblings of the bass violins, and the rocking out of all of the musicians during the final nightmare of the Witches’ Sabbath. The players seemed to be having a blast and it resonated all over the hall.

In sharp contrast, the opening piece “Blossoming II” (written by Hosokawa in 2011) generated tones that seemed to emerge out of nowhere. A pillowy soft sound would gradually increase in volume and size and then shrink. It was soft of like hearing plants grow during the day and relax at night. Sometimes Alicia Didonato Paulsen’s flute would ruffle things up a bit like the wind. At other times, the strings would create insect-like sounds. Perhaps a number of other instruments were involved in these effects. I think that I heard the contrabassoon (Evan Kuhlmann) dive into the depths before vanishing into a higher realm. Märkl marvelously guided it all with gestures that at times looked like he was swatting at flies.

Overall, this was a terrific program that really stretched the ears and mind. Kudos to the orchestra and its guest artists.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Lauderdale goes into overdrive for Beethoven Choral Fantasy

Popular bandleader and hometown icon Thomas Lauderdale went into overdrive in his performance of Beethoven’s “Choral Fantasy” on Saturday (March 14) at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. It was a bit of a stretch for Lauderdale. His runs up and down the keyboard were not smooth, and he missed some notes on the top end. But he did bring a lot of energy and enthusiasm to the stage and that resonated well with the audience, which responded with boisterous cheers and a standing ovation.

Most serious pianists at the top of their game don’t bring a bottle of water onto the stage with them, but Lauderdale being Lauderdale got away with this. He also got carried away with flinging his arms about after finishing an arduous passage of which there were several. Perhaps if he had done that gesture only at the end of the piece, it wouldn’t have been distracting. He has a charismatic personality that connects extremely well with the audience, and as a cheer-leading member of the orchestra’s board, he has done a lot to promote the orchestra and keep it in the black (the New Year’s concerts, for example, which generate lots of money that goes directly into the orchestra’s coffers is attributed to Lauderdale).

The choral part of the “Choral Fantasy” was performed with distinction by the combined forces of the Portland State Chamber Choir, Man Choir, and Vox Femina, all of which were prepared by Ethan Sperry. The blend was excellent, but the diction (lots of tough German words) needed a little more clarity. Because the soloists and choir were all packed into the balcony behind the orchestra, amplification was effectively used.

In the second half of the concert, Lauderdale played Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s “Grande Tarantelle for Piano and Orchestra.” Lauderdale faired a little better in this piece, which was kind of like a souped-up salon number. But again his runs tended to be ragged in the few exposed sections. Still, the audience loved it, and embraced Lauderdale with loud adoration.

The program began with a sensitive interpretation of Hindemith “Nobilissima vision” (Concert Suite from “St. Francis”). The dirge-like seriousness at the start of the piece featured a marvelously soft collaboration between the strings and the clarinets. Flutist Alecia DiDonato Paulsen created a lovely wandering line that wafted above while others established a sense of someone walking slowly. Zachariah Galatis’ piccolo combined with the percussion section to elicit a military-like march. A throbbing bass passage contrasted strongly with a mellow flute line and lyrical violins. Somewhere along the way, Martin Hébert’s oboe declared a wonderfully simple melody. The ensemble, with the brass weighing in, built up the sound until it became massive and out of that emerged a noble theme – shared by all sections of the orchestra. Overall, conductor Carlos Kalmar and the orchestra evoked the enigmatic nature of this piece and made it very satisfying.

The concert ended with Randall Thompson’s Second Symphony, a lively and optimistic work. From the energetic and vigorous opening to the jaunty theme in the finale, the orchestra played with intensity and made the piece thoroughly engaging. Trumpeter Jeffrey Work and timpanist Jonathan Greeney teamed up for a series of exciting riffs. Highlights included surging sforzandos from the French horns, expressive melodies from the woodwinds, pronounced and dramatic shifts by the entire ensemble, and a brassy reflection from the bass trombone. It was a fun piece to hear, and it made me wonder about the other symphonies that Thompson wrote.

Returning to Lauderdale, his bio in the program started with the statement that he has thought running for the office of the mayor of Portland. I think that he would win such a contest, and that would be a good thing for the orchestra and musical arts, which continue to struggle in the City of Roses. On top of that, which other mayors across the United States can play anything besides chopsticks on the piano?

Monday, March 16, 2015

Super bassoonist Buncke soars above in performance with the Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra

After hearing Keith Buncke live, I understand how this 21-year-old phenom won the principal bassoonist position with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Buncke, the featured guest artist at the Portland Columbia Symphony concert on Friday (March 13th), played with a level of maturity that is astounding. His impeccable and artistic performances of works by Heitor Villa-Lobos and Carl Maria von Weber marvelously showed off his talents in contrasting ways. The concert was a homecoming of sorts for Buncke, a tall and lanky fellow who seemed to resemble the instrument he plays so well. He grew up in Lake Oswego and was still in his junior year at the Curtis Institute of Music when he won the principal bassoonist post with the Atlanta Symphony.

One of the fun things about the concert was brief introduction given by Betsy Hatton, who is PSCO’s executive director and a violinist in the ensemble. She remembered getting a phone call several years ago from Mark Eubanks, Buncke’s teacher, who asked if there were any age restrictions for someone to become a member of the PCSO. Hatton replied that there were not such restrictions. So Buncke competed in a blind audition for the principal bassoonist position and won it at the age of 15. Hatton then proudly said, “We gave him his first paycheck.”

In “Ciranda das sete notes” (“Dance of the Seven Notes”), Villa-Lobos used seven notes of the C-major scale to fashion a fantasy for the bassoon soloist and orchestral strings. Buncke expressed lyrical tones with a slight vibrato that could be heard over the orchestra. His handling of ascending scales that often bubbled up from the basement of the instrument and ended somewhere in upper story then went back downstairs again. In a later section, while the bass violins established a gently rocking current, Buncke elicited a mellow lament that floated above. The piece ended with Buncke playing an elegant note that he held for a long time before joining the orchestra on a short and much lower one.

Weber’s “Andante and Hungarian Rondo” is considered by many to be the most popular bassoon concerto after Mozart’s. Buncke introduced the languorous theme and deftly launched into its variations, exchanging some of them with the orchestra along the way. Duets between Buncke and his colleagues in the bassoon section were memorable, and the dance-like sections had a good bounce to them. Buncke played with panache, making it all look incredibly easy.

The orchestra, under its still-new music director Steven Byess, gave a polished account of Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Capriccio Espagnol.” The pace was a bit slow but that didn’t stop stellar contributions from Jen Harrison, principal French horn, Liberty Broillet, principal flute, Barbara Johnston, principal cello, and Dawn Carter, concertmaster.

Manuel de Falla’s Suite No. 2 from “The Three Cornered Hat” also received a spirited performance from the orchestra. The French horns, Brad Hochhalter, principal oboe, and Ann van Bever, English horn deserved kudos for their fine playing. George Enescu’s “Romanian Rhapsody No. 1” came off a bit flat and under-rehearsed. It needed a lot more zip in order to get that wild, Hungarian feel.

Postscript: Last June, I got to hear the Chicago Symphony's principal bassoonist David McGill in his final concert with the orchestra. If you want to read about that concert, click here.

Friday, March 13, 2015

“Guys and Dolls” on a roll in Portland

The national tour of “Guys and Dolls” rolled into Portland a few days ago, and the cast did a bang up job in its performance on Wednesday evening (March 11) at the Keller Auditorium. Matthew J. Taylor had that unique combination of suave and debonair and all-American swagger that made the role of Sky Masterson, high-level gambler, a winner. Taylor was well-matched by Kayleen Seidl , who created a no-nonsense, yet ready to cut loose at any moment Sarah Brown, the Salvation Army leader and love-interest of Masterson.

Lauren Weinberg’s Adelaide was wonderfully cheesey with a New York accent that could take the chrome off the bumper of a ’55 Chevy. As local gambling honcho Nathan Detroit, Christopher Swan kept an engaging stream of banter going with all of his gambling cronies while diligently extending his engagement to Adelaide as long as possible.

Todd Berkich, as Nicely-Nicely Johnson, got everyone swaying with his terrific singing of “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” setting off exuberant dancing and singing by the entire ensemble. The razzmatazz neatly paralleled the wild scene in Havana with Brown and Masterson.

Cliff Blake wielded a gruff Jimmy Durante-esque voice as Harry the Horse while John Galas as Big Julie intimidated everyone with his fire-hydrant stance. John Ryan’s avuncular Arvide Abernathy provided reassurance that at least one person wasn’t worried about winning souls or a game of craps. Michael C. Thatcher’s serious-minded Lieutenant Brannigan and Jesse Graham’s stolid General Cartwright were excellent counterweights to the collection of con-men and saucy women.

The scenery, designed by Randel Wright, efficiently set the locations with a minimum of fuss. The costumes were a combination of zoot suit riot, spats, and pinstripes for the men, burgundy outfits for the Salvation Army-folks, and skimpy, sexy numbers for the ladies of the night and the hot box girls. The orchestra, conducted by Peter Nilsen, consisted of just nine musicians, but their playing was spot on, making the most of Frank Loesser's music. Stage director Jeffrey B. Moss and choreographer Bob Richard set a brisk pace that was engaging from the get go.

The biggest challenge for this show was the amplification. For some strange reason, everyone was over-amplified, which made it difficult to understand what was said or sung. After intermission, I moved to a side section that was not directly in the line of the huge speakers, and I found that I could understand all of the words much better. Amplification in the Keller seems to be the biggest bugaboo for touring shows. Getting that show that gets the right amount of amplification is a crap shot.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Grosvenor's Portland Piano International recital one of the best ever

Pianist Benjamin Grosvenor unleashed the subtlest of dynamics and blessed them with just the right tempi during his performance on Monday evening (March 9) at Lincoln Hall at part of Portland Piano International's recital series. His meticulous artistry brought out the essence of each piece on the program in an intimate way that made listening to the music a life-enhancing experience.

Playing works by Chopin, Ravel, Granados, and Scriabin, plus an arrangement by Adolf Schulz-Evler of Johann Strauss’s “Blue Danube,” Grosvenor, a 22-year-old phenomenon from England, constantly probed each phrase of each piece yet kept everything within the arc of the piece. He found sounds that shifted from soft to softer to softest with all sorts of gradations in between. His mezzo-fortes to double fortes were also impressive in their variety.

Coupling artistry with flawless technique, Grosvenor’s playing of Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 and Ballade No. 3 exposed new tonal colors – even to those of us who have heard those pieces countless times. The same could be said for his interpretation of two Mazurkas (F minor, Op. 63, No. 2 and C-sharp minor, Op. 30, No. 4) and of the Barcarolle in F-sharp Major, Op. 60 as well as the “Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise Brillante.”

In his performance of Ravel’s “Valses nobles et sentimentales,” Grosvenor explored all sorts of nuances, including excursions that were articulate yet playful and others that featured lovely soft suspensions. Grosvenor created a series of natural transitions from serious to lighthearted in Granados’ “Valses poeticos,” and left an indelible impression with an immaculate blitz of notes at the end of the piece. His playing of Scriabin’s “Valse” was wonderfully explosive and flamboyant. Taking it up a notch, he concluded his program with Evler’s arrangement, the “Blue Danube,” which left effervescent sounds swirling towards the ceiling of Lincoln Hall.

The audience erupted with its second standing ovation (the first one happened before intermission), cheers and bravos, which brought Grosvenor back to the piano for two encores. The first was a soothingly light piece, “The Fountain and the Clock” by the Spanish composer Fredrico Mompou. The second was all virtuosic fireworks, a Concert Etude by Ernst von Dohnanyi. Both were marvelously played by Grosvenor.

For those of you who missed the opportunity to hear Grosvenor, don’t despair. He will be back next season to play a concerto with the Oregon Symphony. That should be an exceptional concert.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Virtuosic playing by Maia Hoffman in Walton’s Viola Concerto highlights PYP concert

Violist Maia Hoffman
Maia Hoffman gave an astonishingly beautiful performance of William Walton’s Viola Concerto on Saturday evening (March 7) in the Portland Youth Philharmonic’s Winter Concert at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Considering that Hoffman is just a senior at Wilson High School, “astonishingly beautiful” might be an understatement. “Dazzling” and “superb” are two other superlatives that come to mind, yet fall short of describing Hoffman’s performance.

One of the great things about Hoffman’s playing was that she created a compelling storyline for the concerto. It could’ve been just a flashy piece with a lot of technical jujitsu for the soloist, but Hoffman took the audience on a musical journey that travelled from a an unhurried and smooth state past episodic ones that altered between frenetic and meandering passages before concluding with a feeling that was meditative and restful. Along the way, Hoffman delved into a sweeping palate of sounds that ranged from warm and lyrical to brusque and marcato. Her impeccable playing included a myriad of double stops and quick-silver runs that looked devilishly treacherous. Hoffman’s deft fingerwork made it all look completely natural, including an impressive zing on the fast moving notes at the end of the second movement.

The orchestra, under musical director David Hattner, supported Hoffman with expert attention to dynamics, making sure not to drown out the soloist especially during the louder passages. The snappy articulation from the entire ensemble at the beginning of the second movement was particularly impressive. The principal flutist and principal bassoonist contributed brief solos with distinction. Overall, Hoffman, Hattner, and the orchestra collaborated with panache to turn this relatively unknown work into a winner and a standing ovation.

The concert began with a marvelous account of the Symphony No. 3 of Johannes Brahms. After the strong opening statement, the orchestra negotiated its way through the thick stew of Brahms’ music. The woodwinds were a bit brittle at the beginning of the first movement, but they produced a relaxed, warm tone after the recapitulation of the main themes. Excellent interplay and blend between the woodwinds, horns, and lower strings along with a resonant yet soft brass choir highlighted the second movement. The cellos and violins wonderfully brought out the elegiac melody at the start of the third movement and the principal horn aced his exposed passage. The entire ensemble generated organic crescendos and decrescendos in the fourth movement and, skillfully guided by Hattner, brought the piece to a gentle finale.

The concert closed with a spirited performance of Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” in the 1919 version. The lower strings established a sense of utter darkness and as the orchestral forces gradually joined in to evoke the palace of the evil ogre Kastchei. Wonderful contributions by the woodwinds (with kudos to the principals) created the mercurial firebird and the lovely princesses who played in Kastchei’s garden. The “Infernal Dance of King Kashchei” moved along well, but it would have been even better if it could have been wilder and looser. The lush strings and the restful sounds of the principal oboe and English horn added sweetness to the “Lullaby.” The principal French horn and principal flute summoned the orchestra to swell into a bravura finish that generated cheers a echoing bravos from the audience. Indeed, the young and talented members of the Portland Youth Philharmonic deserved high marks for their performance of this difficult piece, and Hattner was brought back to the stage a couple of times in appreciation for what he and the orchestra accomplished.