Monday, June 9, 2008

Concert Review—Portland State University Symphony Orchestra

By Bob Kingston

A large and enthusiastic crowd attended Sunday afternoon’s Portland State University Symphony Orchestra concert in the soon to be renovated Lincoln Hall. The program included Francis Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (with PSU professor Susan Chan and Momoko Muramatsu), Antonin Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony, and the world premiere performances of two short pieces by the winners of this year’s Composition Competition. Since this was my first opportunity to hear the orchestra under its new conductor and music director, Ken Selden, I really had no context for evaluating the group’s overall level of proficiency. All in all, I’d say that there were some very encouraging signs, but there’s always room to grow and improve.

To kick things off, Benjamin Thauland and the Portland State University New Music Ensemble presented a pair of works by Gavi de Tarr and Sarah Jarvinen, winners of the 2008 PSU Composition Competition. De Tarr’s "Far and Away" was essentially a series of quick vignettes, each one flowing effortlessly into the next one through subtle manipulations of rhythm and timbre. De Tarr, a student of Brad Hansen, listed Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, and Hindemith as significant influences, though I detected Copland and a little Martinu standing on the sidelines. He also informed me that while there may be some programmatic elements to this composition, the title is actually a bit of a pun, as it’s either "far and away" the best—or worst—piece he’s ever written.

Sarah Jarvinen’s "Caprice," which originally started out life in 2000 as a sonata for clarinet and piano, provided an interesting contrast to "Far and Away." Here, the music floated along as if in a dream state, with little of the forward momentum of de Tarr’s more extroverted work. The piano added momentary splashes of color—very much in the style of Messiaen—but otherwise seemed to have no independent function within the instrumental texture. "Caprice" was simply too brief to make much of a lasting impression, though some of the ideas might have fared better had Jarvinen been able to develop them more, perhaps with an even more expanded role for the keyboard.

(As an aside, I’m wondering why there was absolutely no background information in the program itself on either of the two student composers and their compositions, or on the details of the competition they won. It seems to me that the audience could have benefited from finding out about the thought process behind these works, and given the relatively informal nature of the event, it certainly wouldn’t have been inappropriate to have de Tarr and Jarvinen say a few words on their own behalf.)

Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra offers listeners a wealth of wonderfully incompatible musical elements: a clattering, percussive pianism; a cheeky music hall can-can; expressive lyricism bathed in rich, Ravel-like chords; and a shameless parody of a Mozart slow movement, all mixed together with equal parts vulgarity and elegance. What Sunday’s performance, which featured PSU professor Susan Chan and New York-based pianist Momoko Muramatsu, lacked in grace and charm, it more than made up for in fire and passion. Those who prefer a lighter, frothier approach to Poulenc might well have been disappointed. Given the not inconsiderable amount of musical back and forth that occurs between the soloists in this piece, I was struck by how infrequently Chan and Muramatsu interacted with, or even acknowledged, each other. Both appeared to be perfectly content in their own world, and as a result, the piano parts in the first minute or so of the concerto was not precisely coordinated.

After the intermission, members of the Clackamas High School Orchestra joined their PSU colleagues onstage for the Symphony No. 8 in G major by Antonin Dvorak. The Eighth is certainly Dvorak’s most idyllic symphony—in recent years it has been referred to informally as his "Pastoral"—a work in which the natural beauties of the Czech countryside and the rustic simplicities of everyday life are richly evoked. But it is also a work of great dramatic intensity, and the best performances manage to draw out both the bucolic and the turbulent in more or less equal measure. While maestro Selden’s reading tended to emphasize the latter at the expense of the former, there were moments when, thanks to some very fine solo and ensemble playing from the woodwinds in the second movement, the charming folk-like character of the symphony assumed pride of place. Unfortunately though, as can happen, the strings failed to hold up their end of the bargain, musically speaking, and consequently their sound was occasionally thin and wiry, or in the case of the cellos in the final movement, just plain underpowered. Special mention should go to the brass section, and in particular the horns and trombones.

Sunday’s was the last Portland State University Symphony Orchestra concert in Lincoln Hall until after the structure undergoes a much-needed seismic and cosmetic overhaul. Over the next two years, the group will perform in St. Mary’s Hall, during which time I’m sure maestro Selden will continue to build on what he’s accomplished so far.

Bob Kingston is a Portland-based musicologist who writes and lectures frequently about classical music.

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