Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Oregon Symphony musicians perform chamber music in special concert

The musicians of the Oregon Symphony put together a fine program of chamber music for folks who have donated money. This concert was the annual Evelyn Nagel Donor Appreciation Concert, and it took place - for the first time - at the Newmark Theater.

The musicians played superbly, but the acoustics in the Newmark - which was built for speech rather than for music - presented a real barrier, because sound seemed far away, especially for the upper strings. Every time the musicians tried to increase the volume, it barely made a dent. Of course, the decrescendos sounded very weak as well. In a much better space, the music would've slapped our faces silly. Take the Mendelssohn Octet for strings (Movements 3 & 4), which received an outstanding performance. It was easy to tell that all of the musicians really got into a grove and were playing their hearts out, but the Newmark just sucks the sound into the ceiling and leaves it there.

I was sitting in the third row of the first balcony. Maybe I should've tried the second balcony. That's where I usually sit for the Portland Piano International performances. I think the the sound goes straight up to the confounded dome (which nobody looks at). Perhaps one way to get around this is to bring the musicians as close as possible to the audience - maybe even build and extension - so that they are in front of the proscenium, and then cover up that dome (or bring the ceiling down) with surfaces that would reflect the sound back to the audience and liven up the place.

In general, pieces that had some brass and woodwinds worked better than those without. The first piece, Britten's "Fanfare for St. Edmundsbury" calls for three trumpets and that number came across pretty well. I kind of wanted some flags - like for a Medieval jousting tournament - to spring out at the very end. But hey, maybe there should be a special OSO flag. Surely, one of the art schools in town should be able to whip up something for the orchestra.

Next came Mozart's "Adagio and Fugue," which was played by orchestra members who are also known as the Arnica Quartet. This was the one piece in which the sound seemed bottled up, despite the beautiful playing. Heather Blackburn's cello did project well, and I wonder if that had to do with the angle in which the cello is positioned.

Ron Blessinger, Niel DePonte, and Joël Belgique teamed up to create an intriguing performance of Chen Yi's "Yangko." Before playing, Blessinger told the audience that this music is based on ancient dances from Northeast China. The rhythmic and vocally percussive parts of this piece looked really challenging, but Belgique and DePonte did a masterful job. Belgique, in particular, deserved extra praise because most of us normally associated him with the viola and had no idea that he is a frustrated percussionist.

Flutist Alicia DiDonato Paulsen and cellist Nancy Ives created a stir with their interpretation of "Assobio a Jato" ("The Jet Whistle") by Villa-Lobos. This piece worked very well and both musicians played with passion. The audience even broke into applause after the first movement and gave them sustained applause at the end.

The wonderful Mendelssohn Octet wrapped the first half, and I enjoyed a glass of wine during intermission and drew up quick conclusions in my mind regarding how to fix the acoustics in the Newmark.

The second half began with Stravinsky's Octet for winds (Movements 1, 2, & 3). Top notch playing by the musicians made this piece very enjoyable, especially the section in the second movement that sounds like a circus-clown-waltz and the two (too) brief bassoon duets, which Carin Miller and Evan Kuhlmann played.

Next came Runswick's "Suite and Low" (Movements 1 & 2) which showed off the fingerstyling handiwork of three double basses (Jason Schooler, Jeffrey Johnson, and Tommy Thompson) and the virtuosic playing of JáTtik Clark on the tuba. I hope that these guys get together somewhere soon to do this piece again.

The concert ended with a tour-de-force piece performance of Strauss' "Don Juan" in an arrangement by Evan Kuhlmann. I heard superb playing from everyone in the group, and kudos all around with some extra stars for oboist Martin Hebert and flutist Alicia DiDonato Paulsen. Kuhlmann's arrangement was pretty incredible, capturing the mood and the nuances of Strauss' famous work in wonderful and unique ways.

All in all, I really enjoyed this concert. It gets the players closer to the audience as individuals, and I hope that the Oregon Symphony does this again.
Post Script: At the very end of the concert all of the musicians come on stage to receive a hearty round of applause, then they applauded the audience. That was cool and classy.

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