|Justin Brown and Inon Barnatan|
“A Shakespearean sandwich” was an apt description given by guest conductor Justin Brown to describe the Oregon Symphony concert on Saturday (November 15) at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. The outer portions of the sandwich consisted of music from Verdi’s “Macbeth” and Berlioz’s “Roméo et Juliette.” Ravel’s Piano Concert in G major with soloist Inon Barnatan provided the filling. This was Barnatan’s second appearance with the Oregon Symphony, and he teamed up well with Brown, who is the music director of the Badisches Staatsheater Karlsruhe (Germany) to give a brilliant performance of the Ravel.
With Barnatan at the keyboard, Ravel’s Piano Concerto shimmered with a slightly jazzy sentiment. Whether playing dizzyingly fast passages or taking a leisurely stroll around the ivories, Barnaton knew how to walk the fine line between classical and jazz that Ravel created for this piece. The orchestra matched his artistry with a variety of impeccably articulated sounds, which included brief, jazzy slurs, beautiful phrases for the harp, crazy high notes for the bassoon and French horn, and frenetic yet impeccable trumpeting (with kudos of principal trumpeter Jeffrey Work).
Berlioz called “Roméo et Juliette” a “dramatic symphony” rather than an opera or a cantata. It is a large scale work for orchestra, chorus, and soloists that lasts over 90 minutes. For its concert, the Oregon Symphony played the orchestral excerpts, five in all, which depict some of the major themes of the story. However, the music, as a colleague of mine pointed out, never really moves to a minor key to bring out the tragic sense of the story. Instead, Berlioz conveyed the events in a different way, with dramatic shifts and glorious sonic effects. But he also got caught up offbeat elements of the story like the Queen Mab Scherzo, which evoked a fairy-like presence who flits about.
Overall, the orchestra, urged on by Brown, gave a ravishingly lush account of Berlioz’s work. The wild beginning with a fight scene depicted by the speeding strings against the grand sonority of the brass was outstanding. The second movement, “Romeo Alone,” was filled with a sense of yearning and featured a quartet of bassoons, terrific pizzicatos from the cellos against a lovely passage by principal oboist Martin Hebert. The solitary figure of Romeo suddenly transitioned into a boisterous one and the movement ended with a bombastic depth charge for the entire orchestra plus two pummeling sets of timpani ably played by principal percussionist Niel DePonte and principal timpanist Jonathan Greeney. The higher strings created a foggy and mysterious atmosphere for the third movement, “Night Scene,” while the bass section made the sound of light footsteps. Among the many highlights of this movements were cello section that laid down an exceptionally warm melody and principal flutist Jessica Sindell in a lovely solo. The strings fashioned a flighty atmosphere in the “Queen Mab Schero,” but the movement also featured hunting horns (French horn section) and duet between the harps and low bassoons. The fifth movement, “Romeo at the Tomb of the Capulets” roamed all over the map with dramatic pauses, plaintive calls by Juliet (played superbly by principal clarinetist Yoshinori Nakao), a wild explosion of sound, and two final, plucked notes at the end, signifying death.
The concert began with an evocative performance of the ballet music from Verdi’s “Macbeth.” The melodious strings, the beguiling flute solo (Sindell), the wiggly trumpet line, the noble sentiment in the duet between principal cellist Nancy Ives and principal bassoonist Evan Kuhmann, were some of the most vivid memories from this piece. It made me want to hear the rest of the opera.
Brown, who conducted all of the pieces without a baton, used a very expressive and energetic style. The orchestra astutely channeled his variety of brief gestures, including a number of signals that looked to be very challenging to read. The great thing about this orchestra is that they do not get rattled by much of anything. The musicians picked up on the emotional content of Brown’s conducting and went with it. That is just another reason not to miss any upcoming concert that this orchestra presents. Its musicians continue to play at the topmost level, and that is just amazing.