The atmosphere at the Oregon Symphony's concert last Sunday struck me as very odd. For some reason, I just couldn't get into the music. The concert was fairly well attended. The house looked like it was 85 percent full, and lots of folks were geared up for laureate music director James DePreist, who returns once each season to conduct.
I was especially looking forward to the Wagner piece, because, in all of the years that I have been attending concerts here, I can't recall DePreist ever conducting a Wagner piece despite the fact DePreist's conducting style fits Wagner's music perfectly. I had the overture from Die Meistersinger stuck in my head when the first notes were played, and realized that they are playing the Prelude to ActII of Die Meistersinger. This is a subdued, quiet, piece, and it was elegantly played, but dang, I wanted to hear the festive, marching Wagner instead of the melancholy one. (Side note: DePreist has been conducting more and more Wagner lately. He conducted Ring excerpts with Jane Eaglen this past summer at Aspen and he has a whole raft of ring excerpts scheduled for a concert with Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony. See his schedule here.)
Next came Max Bruch's Violin Concerto with virtuoso Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. Maybe I was out of sorts, but Salerno-Sonnenberg's playing just didn't grab me. She seemed to dig into the notes at times when they didn't need to be dug out, and some of the themes seemed to be disjointed. Of course, NSS was entirely in her element in the fiery last movement, and the audience responded with wild applause.
DePreist remained in his wheelchair on the podium during the entire intermission. This has been his standard way of doing things for the last several years (after his kidney transplant operation), and when the second half began, he didn't turn to the audience to acknowledge their applause. He just simply launched into Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2 in E minor. This is a piece that he and the orchestra know well. They recorded it in 1992, but most of those players are not in the current roster.
I heard lots of committed, emotionally gratifying playing on Sunday evening. The lush, beautiful melodies were expansive. The sforzando entrances and acceleration into the faster passages were exciting and precise. One time, the woodwinds cascaded over and onto the rest of the ensemble with too much volume (Charles Noble in his blog noted that the orchestra might have overreacted to DePreist's gestures here and there.) Still the musicians created many magical moments, like when principal clarinetist Yoshinori Nakao pours out pure, warm, smooth legato lines.
What troubled me though was DePreist's baton movement. He just didn't have the usual expansive gestures that are his trademark. This is a big fellow with a very large wingspan. But he didn't use it at all. And during his acknowledgments of the enthusiastic applause from the audience, he used a very limited gesture to the violins on his right and then to the violas on his left. It left me with some sadness to think that he may not be feeling well. This tremendously talented fellow, who has not let his skin color, polio, kidney disease, and who knows what else, stop him from sharing his gift for making music, seemed to be somewhat diminished. I hope that I'm wrong.
PS: I liked seeing GeorgeAnne Ries in the flute section again. She has also been playing in the Portland Opera orchestra during their production of Cinderella. So, Ries earns the freelance player of the week award!