A near-capacity audience at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall reveled in an unusual gala concert with the Oregon Symphony and virtuosi of the banjo, mandolin, tabla, and double bass on Saturday evening (September 26). The orchestra welcomed Bela Fleck, Chris Thile, Zakir Hussain, and Edgar Meyer and whipped up some very new music by these guest artists. It seemed to be a gamble to center a gala on Fleck, Hussain, and Meyer’s Triple Concerto and Thile’s Mandolin Concerto (a piece that was co-commissioned by the orchestra along with other ensembles), but the audience loved every minute of the music-making.
The concert began with a robust performance of Antonín Dvořák’s “Carnival Overture.” The flashy parts in which the entire orchestra going at full throttle contrasted well with the quieter sections that featured lilting sounds from the horns, and sensitive playing by strings and woodwinds. The rousing ending of the piece caused the audience to respond enthusiastically and set the tone for the rest of the concert.
Next on the program came Thile’s Mandolin Concerto, which has the intriguing addendum “Ad astra per alia porci,” which means “To the stars on the wings of a pig.” That helped to characterize the quirky and fanciful nature of this piece. The concerto featured a brief, yet lyrical duet for the mandolin and oboe, passages in which the mandolin was climbing while the orchestra was descending, extended pizzicato playing by the strings, sharp cutoffs, and jazzy riffs plus a long solo passage for the mandolin.
The concerto’s fragmentary and episodic nature made it difficult to grasp. Just when I thought I could understand where the music was drifting, Thile and the orchestra would change directions. The emotional range of the piece seemed rather limited, but I would love to hear it again.
The audience gave the concerto a thunderous reception, and Thile responded with an incredible performance of the “Giga” movement from Bach’s D-minor partita for violin. The speed and impeccable playing that Thile put on display was astonishing. How a lanky young man who crimps himself around the mandolin played with such virtuoso flair was mind-boggling. After he finished the piece, the crowd went nuts.
After intermission, the orchestra was joined by Meyer, Fleck, and Hussain to perform “The Melody of Rhythm: Triple Concerto for Banjo, Tabla, and Double Bass.” (The tabla is a pair of hand drums that an essential part of musical culture in India.) The three soloists started fast out of the gate and, after racing around a bit, executed a smooth transition to a slower, more expansive section of music in which the orchestra created a sound that was like a very still, clear body of water.
At times in the piece, Meyer would take the lead and slide into notes and the sound became slightly more jazzy or bluesy. Meyer also showed some exceptionally fast stick work and plucking skills, and Fleck took to occasional flights of fancy as well. Yet it was Hussain’s mesmerizing solo on the tabla that really rocked the casbah in this piece. He played if he had 100 fingers and instead of just 10. He could shift rhythms and change textures on a dime, pick up speed, slow down, vary the volume, and make it all look effortless. It was stunning.
Towards the end of the piece, the orchestra took things up a notch in volume and the trio of soloists hastened the tempo until everything stopped on a fortissimo. That got the audience out of its seats with boisterous cheering and whistling.
Keeping the mood upbeat, Kalmar and the orchestra reassembled themselves for Franz von Suppé’s Overture to “Dichter und Bauer” (“Poet and Peasant”) which they played with panache. Principal cellist Nancy Ives performed her solo wonderfully and the fast pace at the conclusion of the piece was thrilling.
With the audience still applauding wildly, the orchestra launched into an encore, the “Furioso Polka” by Johann Strauss Jr. and raised the bar higher by playing with all guns blazing. This was a fun and rollicking piece to experience and a great way to end the concert, expect that the concert continued after the orchestra left the stage. This time, all four soloists: Meyer, Fleck, Hussain, and Thile came out for an impromptu jam session. I only heard the first 30 minutes of their playing, and it was very inspired. The foursome ventured all over the musical territory into jazz, blues, bluegrass, and even some funky stuff (Thile especially). Most of the audience stayed to experience the jam session and listened intently. That created the perfect night cap for one of the most unusual concerts that any orchestra can serve up.