Sunday, December 6, 2009

Review of PSU Symphony's Destinies and Destinations concert

By guest reviewer Stephen Llewellyn (aka Operaman)

As any of you who read my weekly Operaman’s blog will know by now I am no musicologist. Furthermore, let me tell you right off that I was Northwest Reverb’s fourth-string option to review last Friday evening’s concert given by the Portland State University Symphony Orchestra. So your reading this is a bit like you going to a Minnesota Vikings game expecting to see Brett Favre and getting Sage Rosenfels. You may just catch him on a day that he's great of course, but that's unlikely and he’s not what you paid good money for. That having been said, I did attend that concert and have some moderately cogent thoughts about what I saw and heard so try and stay with me here, okay?

If your idea of a wonderful orchestral concert includes going into the intermission with memories of a grand Beethoven overture still sounding in your head but fighting with the sparkling tunes of the Mozart Piano Concerto that followed it, then the first half of Friday’s concert afforded you a great opportunity to stay home in the warm, pour yourself a scotch and watch a rerun of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation or, perhaps, World Wrestling’s Friday Night Smackdown. If, however, you did go to Saint Mary’s Cathedral you would have found the first half of the gig opened with Heiner Goebbel's Surrogate Cities Sampler Suite which segued into Ernest Bloch’s Concerto Grosso Number 2. And if you went, then I hope you had as splendid a time as I did.

I should begin by mentioning the venue. I have been to only one concert previously in this church and was very disappointed by the sound. Not so on Friday evening. The sound was warm without being mushy and from my seat (about a half of the way back and on the aisle,) I was able to hear every note as clear as a bell. I attribute this to conductor Ken Selden having paid very close attention in rehearsal to matters such as balance within the orchestra and vis-à-vis the audience. Thank you, Maestro. It made a huge difference to my level of enjoyment.

One of the problems with giving a piece a lengthy and somewhat curious title, and then naming all of the 'movements' after baroque dances, is that it induces expectations in the audience. In this case, one might well have looked at the programme and said to ones self "Ah. Somehow this work is going to make me think of a city within the context of pieces of music that will remind me of 18th century dances." Well, I think Mr Goebells is having a little private joke here. Alternatively, while listening to Lully and Rameau and reading the record sleeve that referred to things such as Menuet and Gavotte, he was doing some really wicked acid. Not for a moment, however, did that detract from my enjoyment of the work which I found to be quirky, whimsical and imaginative. But the movement marked Bourée? I know Bourées, Mr Goebbels and that was no Bourée. The imaginative orchestration includes a sampler, a computer-programmed instrument that produces synthesized sound in accordance with instructions 'written in' to the machine ahead of the performance. Lisa Marsh was a fine soloist on this instrument.

I am somewhat ashamed to have to admit that I came very late to the Ernest Bloch musical party in celebration of the 50th anniversary of his death. It has been going on all year, largely without me, but I finally showed up at the door and brought a good bottle of wine so they let me in. I am very happy. My first exposure to Bloch was Elmar Oliveira’s stunning performance of Baal Shem at Chamber Music Northwest’s Summer Festival, which James Bash reviewed here. More recently I heard the Portland Youth Philharmonic perform two interludes from his opera Macbeth. I have also taken the opportunity to listen to some recordings and I no longer need to be persuaded that Bloch wrote music of the highest order and that Oregon is justly very proud that he chose to make it his home.

Bloch’s Concerto Grosso Number 2, written in 1952, is scored for just sixteen string players. Now, if you are designing a concert for an amateur orchestra that is a bold choice because with such small forces, every instrumental part is, at some point, very exposed, and matters such as faulty intonation are laid bare for all to hear. Maestro Selden played a brilliant card by bringing in some ringers – in this case four string players from the Third Angle New Music Ensemble. This seeding of the strings had two excellent results. Firstly, of course, the Third Angle players provided a solid base in support of the other instrumentalists. Additionally, though, their presence raised everyone else’s game. What we got as a result was string playing that was disciplined, virtually pitch-perfect and displaying remarkable ensemble. The piece itself is just gorgeous! It put me very much in mind of the works for string orchestra of Vaughan Williams. I do not mean this in the sense that Bloch was ripping off VW’s style or that he was displaying himself as a Vaughan Wannabee. I mean that he wrote a piece that is lush, romantic, dense and complex while being melodic and charming. It also demonstrated what you can do with strings if they are not fighting to be heard over a brass section. I liked it so well I have just purchased if from And had there been a recording of what I heard on Friday, that is the one I would have bought. That's how well I liked it.

After the intermission we were treated to a brilliant performance of the Elgar Cello Concerto with soloist Hye Jun Yang. Ms Yang won first prize in the 2009 PSU Symphony Concerto Competition. It's not hard to see how she did that. From the opening notes of the first movement she showed technical command and emotional restraint which combination allowed us to sit back, comfortable in the knowledge that she was up to the physical demands of the piece, while letting the music move us without her trying to superimpose dramatic effect. There were one or two minor problems of intonation in the first movement. I put them down to nerves. When set against the gorgeous overall effect she achieved they were inconsequential. I mention them not to nit pick, but because she knows they were there and to omit any mention of them would be to deny the attention I paid to her playing and the degree to which she drew me in to her first-rate performance. In the lento section of the second movement, Ms Yang gave us ravishing tone and the virtuoso passages of the final movement's allegro were presented in a fluid and unaffected style. Throughout, Maestro Selden had his orchestra provide exemplary support. I should make specific mention of the woodwind section which was crisp and very well balanced. This was a totally captivating performance and it was received with the enthusiasm it deserved.

Addendum and clarification from James Bash: I did contact Stephen because I and my colleague Lorin Wilkerson and regular guest reviewer Aaron Barenbach were not available to review this concert. Stephen might say that he is fourth-stringer, but he is a first-rate writer.

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