It almost felt like the good old days at the Oregon Symphony on Saturday evening. A large crowd nearly filled the Schnitz to capacity for a program that included debuts by a conductor and a guest artist who are relatively unknown in Portland.
For this concert, James Gaffigan, associate conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, led the local band and guitar virtuoso, Eduardo Fernández was the featured soloist. The entire ensemble teamed up for a terrific performance of Joasquin Rodrigo’s “Concerto de Aranjuez,” one of the most beloved guitar concertos on this side of the Atlantic ocean. According to Elaine Calder, president of the Oregon Symphony, the tickets for this concert sold incredibly well because of that concerto. I had guess that the some special ticket sales had caused the increase, but I was completely wrong. It simply turns out that the orchestra’s fans want to hear this concerto, and Fernández was a perfect choice to fulfill their expectations.
A native of Uruguay, Fernández put on a dazzling artistic display with fleet finger work. The exposed melodic lines of this piece were clear yet lyrical, and Fernández made the difficult stuff look easy and natural, playing cleanly and crisply the entire way. Under Gaffigan’s baton, the orchestra danced lightly with Fernández and enhanced the overall effect with a perfect balance of sound.
But despite the popularity of Rodrigo’s concerto, the orchestra’s musicians weren’t going to coast during this concert and chill out. Instead, they delivered three gem-like performances of the other pieces on the program. They opened the concert with Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 83 (also known as “The Hen”), which could’ve been completely uninteresting. But with Gaffigan in command and with the awesomely unified playing in the string sections, this piece came alive with all sorts of intriguing and engaging sounds that juxtaposed drama and tension with playfulness and lyricism. One of the cool passages in the piece was a nifty oboe duet that featured principal oboist Martin Hebert and assistant principal Karen Wagner. Their sound blended perfectly.
According to the program notes, this was the first time that the Oregon Symphony had performed this work by Haydn. This was also the ensemble's debut performance of Ferruccio Busoni’s “Berceuse élégiaque” Busoni wrote this short work after death of his mother. Because the piece requires only six violins, the weight of the music shifts to the lower register of the orchestra. The Oregon Symphony fully expressed the sad mood of this piece, but the tone didn’t sag or become overbearing. Instead, the orchestra found the somber magic of the music and made it sing.
The concert ended with a magical interpretation of Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” (1919 version), which Gaffigan impressively conducted from memory. The orchestra fully grasped the sonic breath of this enchanting music and gave a performance that sparkled. The entire orchestra deserves praise, and extra kudos should be given to principal trumpet Jeffrey Work, principal oboe Martin Hebert, principal bassoon Carin Miller, principal horn John Cox, and principal flute David Buck.
I also enjoyed watching Gaffigan wade into the orchestra to shake the hands of the orchestra members. It was a genuine gesture and seemed to generate a lot of good will.