Monday, March 16, 2009

Oregon Symphony delivers full brunt of Svoboda's Vortex

Whether we sank into an abyss or blew up the debris of our ruined nation, the final notes of Tomas Svoboda’s “Vortex,” signaled the end of a wild ride that grabbed everyone’s attention at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Saturday (March 14). Svoboda wrote his latest work for orchestra as a reaction to the economic and social turmoil that has dominated our country recently, and “Vortex” received a stunning world premiere by the Oregon Symphony under the baton of Carlos Kalmar in a program that included scintillating performances of Brahms Symphony No. 3 and Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with guest artist Freddy Kempf.

Svoboda’s music took us on a journey that began with light pizzicatos in the strings, which created a pleasant mood. But the wiggle-waggle sounds from a group of “meckering” horns commented on situation with growing discontent, and within a short period of time the entire orchestra was caught up in a mass of tones that seemed to swirl out of control. Soon the whole sonic enterprise collapsed on itself until all that remained was the sad wailing, played evocatively by principal cellist Nancy Ives. The musical forces, supported by the lower strings, gathered themselves once more and a beautiful brass and woodwind choir seemed to emerge and then march into the distance. Ives played a second melancholy passage and gradually other voices of the orchestra stirred but with a bit of harshness. The xylophone, played crisply by principal percussionist Niel DePonte, commented on the circumstances with seemly random notes that began to fall into a recognizable pattern when the cello cried out once again. This gave way to the plucking of strings, which was then taken over by a restlessness (signaled by pulsating trumpets), and a descent into the final vortex was underway.

The audience responded to this work with genuine enthusiasm, and Svoboda out on the stage to receive loud applause and a standing ovation. Although the current times are tough, it would be great to see the Oregon Symphony record “Vortex” sometime in the near future, because it is such a superb work.

And Svoboda’s orchestral piece was just one part of a concert in which the orchestra delivered two other outstanding performances. Before intermission, the orchestra collaborated with Kempf to create a vibrant interpretation of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto. Kempf adds a lot excitement in the way that he pounces on the keyboard and takes off like a purebred racehorse at the Kentucky Derby. The music has a debonair, catch me if you can, quality, but Kalmar and the orchestra are right with Kempf, accenting notes together, and creating some of the most thrilling music in the repertoire. Kempf and the orchestra also excelled in the slow, languid passages, which helped to release all of the pent up energy and let our minds drift aimlessly. The tonal colors that they concocted added to the overall enjoyment of this piece, and the bravos that broke out after it concluded were full of joy and amazement.

The evening began with Brahms’ Third Symphony, which is not nearly as well known as his other symphonies probably because he did not end it in a grand way. As Kalmar noted to the audience before the symphony began, this work reflects “Brahms looking inside himself,” yet even this inward reflection was given a terrific performance by the orchestra. Kalmar and his forces dug into every nook and cranny of this piece. I loved how the music would surge ahead and then fall back in the first movement. Highlights from the second movement included the sonic blend from the bassoon, clarinet, and horns with supportive commentary from the lower strings. The elegant theme of the third movement and the horn solo by principal John Cox were delicious to the ears, and the full-bodied sound of the fourth glistened. I loved the way that the strings eagerly delved into this music and also how principal Yoshinori Nakao coaxed velvety soft sounds out his clarinet.

The Oregon Symphony plays the music of Svoboda, Prokofiev, and Brahms this evening, and I heartily recommend that you experience it.

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