John Adams has a sense of humor, but it’s one that requires a lot of hard work. In 1992, Adams wrote his “Chamber Symphony” after contemplating Schoenberg and being interrupted by the sounds of a Roadrunner cartoon that his young son was enjoying. I heard a 15-member ensemble from the Oregon Symphony play this exceedingly difficult piece on Sunday evening, and I came away impressed with the constantly shifting myriad of sounds and the rhythmic intensity.
Divided into three movements, the “Chamber Symphony” opened with a jazz-inspired “Mongrel Airs,” but this wasn’t loosey-goosey jazz. The atmosphere was tightly wound and seemed to relax only slightly when the brass laid down a sustained sound. An ascending series of chords gave me the impression of someone climbing a set of stairs, but that escalated quickly into a tornado-like blur that abruptly ended.
Next came “Aria with Walking Bass,” which started with a forlorn call from the trombone. A meandering line from the bassoon and double bass entered while the trumpet and French horn added a layer of melancholy. The violin trilled several times, and the oboe began playing in a stratosphere register. The synthesizer started puttering around before the piccolo got into the act, and then the clarinet started high stepping all over the place. This movement ended with a sense of unfinished business and anticipation.
“Roadrunner,” the last movement, contained a furious amount of mayhem. It was a jumble of cool sounds that would spring from anywhere in the ensemble. At one point violinist Jun Iwasaki made a bunch of scratchy sounds as if the music had to relieve an itch. The piece concluded suddenly, but with a finality as well. Enthusiastic applause from the audience ensued, but I think that some people were puzzled at what they just heard.
The music seemed to reflect a nervous, unsure, and whimsical world. The last movement made me wonder if Adams had indulged in too much Red Bull. The ensemble, made up mostly of orchestra principals, seemed to have fun. But acting principal bassoonist Evan Kuhlmann’s bobbing motion signaled that he was rocking out on the piece.
While the orchestra reconfigured itself for Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2, I switched seats to another section of the lower balcony. This was the evening of the Super Bowl, and attendance was a little down. Guest artist Kirill Gerstein delivered a wonderful rendition of Beethoven’s music. I liked how Gerstein could turn and listen to the orchestra and play superbly at the same time. He easily changed dynamics, and his feathery touch in the first movement was exquisite. The languid section in the second movement made me sink into a mile long pillow. The third movement was a playful frolic between the orchestra and the pianist, concluding brilliantly.
After the applause died down, Gerstein played Liszt’s arrangement of Schubert’s “Erlkönig.” I really enjoyed the way that Gerstein brought out the different voices (the father, the child, and the evil Erlkönig).
The second half of the program, the orchestra played Schumann’s Symphony No. 4. I sat near the topmost row of the balcony for this piece. The sound was very balanced, and I could hear the lower strings almost every time. Crescendos and diminuendos were clearer and more dramatic than in the lower balcony. In the fourth movement, there’s a point in which the orchestra sounds as if it is breaking through a thick, thick haze, and that was just glorious.
Resident conductor Gregory Vajda paced this music well, giving it time to develop and grow. Vajda directed all of the pieces very well, looking for all sorts of nuances, shaping phrases, and having a grand time of it. He and the orchestra capped off the concert with an encore, Franz von Suppé’s Overture to his operetta “Light Cavalry.” This music, as Vajda pointed out to the audience, has been used by cartoons and Hollywood countless times. Everyone played very well, but principal trumpet, Jeffrey Work, played his part magnificently.