In 1662 Isobel Gowdie was accused of witchcraft and killed by the authorities after she had confessed to all sorts of incredible assignations with the devil and stated that she could fly, turn herself into a rabbit, and had killed a ploughman with elf-arrows the devil gave her. Witch trials in Scotland during this time caused the deaths of some 4,500 people and remain a black mark in the history of that country. The discovery of this dark period inspired James MacMillan to write “The Confession of Isobel Gowdie,” a symphonic piece that unearths the tragedy of Gowdie’s death and provides a requiem in her memory and the memory of others who died under similar circumstances.
The Oregon Symphony under the direction of Carlos Kalmar, unleashed the entire spectrum of MacMillan’s work. The piece starts very calmly, starting with the woodwinds and gradually spreading to the strings. It was difficult to detect the liturgical chants and church-like music that are woven into this opening passage, but the music did seem to look back into the misty past. The next theme emerged with a myriad of glissandi from all sections of the orchestra, with the cello section getting the most opportunities. Then came an extended crescendo that ended sharply and an intricate mesh of sound that was punctuated by the percussion. This was followed by thirteen (or more) incredibly piercing attacks, like the lashing of a whip, which could make the sweat break out on your forehead. Then a ruthless thread of sound – led by the trombone section – erupted. Finally, an overall cacophony slowly guided us to still waters with the strings ascending higher and higher – perhaps to depict the soul of Gowdie entering heaven.
Overall, the performance of “The Confession of Isobel Gowdie” was riveting, and its subject matter makes me reflect on my own government, which has advocated the use of torture at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and excused the excesses at Abu Ghraib. Will 300 years pass before a composer writes a work that depicts water boarding and other atrocities?
After intermission, the orchestra performed Mendelssohn’s Incidental Music to Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” With actors, soloists, and women’s choir, this concert drama created a full-meal deal to the delight of an audience in need of a lighter, fairy-tale story about witches and otherworldly things.
The orchestra and forces didn’t disappoint, delivering an enchanting and thoroughly engaging performance of this gem (which was its long-overdue, first-time performance by the orchestra). Actor Ted deChatelet marvelously alternated his voice to convey the mischievous Puck and stately Oberon. Maureen Porter was equally effective in her role as Titania, queen of the fairies. Sopranos Sharin Apostolou and Amy Jo Arrington sang beautifully, as did the women of the Portland Symphonic Choir. The strings were impeccable. The brass played with sensitivity, and principal flutist David Buck again displayed remarkable breath control, playing extended, exposed passages that flowed like a clear stream.
Attendance was down on Sunday night with too many empty seats for such an excellent program. Was this because of Martin Luther King weekend or did folks have problems prying themselves away from the Packers-Giants game. You’d think that Portland’s wicca followers would make a showing or that perhaps Shakespeare lovers, many of whom make yearly treks to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland would’ve been more curious about this show, but alas that was not to be.
PS: My review of last week's Oregon Symphony concert is now posted on Seen and Heard International.