Sunday, April 19, 2009

DePreist, Ohlsson, and Oregon Symphony elevate with Beethoven, Theofandis, and Sibelius

On Saturday evening (April 18), the near-capacity audience at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall got a far superior deal to the one that greeted the sold-out crowd at the Rose Garden. That’s because the concert goers heard an outstanding concert by the Oregon Symphony under its former conductor James DePreist and guest soloist Garrick Ohlsson while the basketball fans had to endure a poor performance by the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of the NBA playoffs. That’s the breaks of the game, I suppose.

It was great to see the Schnitz so full, and the audience gave DePreist one of the warmest welcomes that has ever been given to a conductor in Portland. He then led the orchestra in a vibrant performance of “Rainbow Body,” which was written by Christopher Theofandis, a 41-year-old composer who was recently appointed to the music faculty at Yale University. In 2003, “Rainbow Body” won the Masterprize, an international competition for symphonic music, and since that time it has become the most popularly performed symphonic work by a living composer.

Near the beginning of “Rainbow Body” I heard various sections of the orchestra play sort passages that reminded me of birds suddenly flying away. At times in the piece, one section, for example, the second violins, would sustain a note while other sections played a lyrical theme. Sometimes the trumpets would fade in and out while the bass violins held a drone-like chord. The piece created an ethereal and mystical atmosphere that was full of light and optimism, and it received enthusiastic applause from the audience.

James DePreist and the orchestra then collaborated with Garrick Ohlsson to deliver an exceptional performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4. Ohlsson showed superb technique and artistry throughout this. His playing was impeccable and very expressive, but never overstated or fussy. During the long cadenza in the first movement, Ohlsson had the entire audience under his spell. No one in the house coughed or made any kind of extraneous noise, and spontaneous applause broke out when he came to the end.

The calmness of Ohlsson’s playing in the second movement was gracious and inviting and seemed to soothe the argumentative voice of the orchestra. The light-hearted frolic in the third movement in the hands of Ohlsson and the orchestra was incredibly joyful. The audience erupted with a standing ovation, and Ohlsson returned to the piano to play an encore, the second movement from Beethoven’s Sonata No. 8 (Sonata Pathétique). Again, his playing was absolutely terrific.

The final piece on the program was the Symphony No. 1 by Jean Sibelius. In his initial remarks at the beginning of the concert, DePreist mentioned that some critics found too much influence from Tchaikovsky in this work, and then DePreist added “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” That made me chuckle and reflect at the same time because it contains some truth.

The orchestra really sank its teeth into the Sibelius and expressed the music to the fullest. I loved the majestic chords in the first movement, the melancholy (and somewhat Tchaikovsky-like flavor) tone of the second, the wandering and then rhythmic pulse of the third, and the dynamic ups and downs of the fourth. The orchestra conveyed the muscular quirkiness of Sibelius with depth and great expressiveness. That high level of music making helped to create a memorable concert that elevated the audience. (Better luck next time for the Blazers!)


S.Llewellyn said...

I hope De Priest gave proper attribution for his music/architecture quotation - it came from Elvis Costello!

S.Llewellyn said...

And by the way, Costello added "It's a really stupid thing to want to do!" There has been some suggestion that the originator of this saying was Martin Mull, but I'm going with Costello.

James Bash said...

Hi Stephen,

He said that he couldn't recall who originally said those words. Thanks for finding that tidbit!