Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Portland Columbia Symphony goes Russian, Armenian, and American with conductor Steven Byess and tuba virtuoso JáTtik Clark

Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra under Steven Byes at Mt. Hood Community College

The Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra, under guest conductor Steven Byess presented a colorful Russian sandwich on Sunday afternoon (November 24) at Mt. Hood Community College. Works by Alexander Borodin and Igor Stravinsky formed the outer (breaded) layers and the filling consisted of pieces by American composer Jeff Tyzik and Soviet Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian.  The featured soloist in concert, JáTtik Clark, gave an outstanding performance of Tyzik’s “Four Dances for Tuba and Orchestra.”
This season, the Portland Columbia Symphony is auditioning five conductors in order to find its new music director, and Byess is the third to try out. Byess is the music director of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra and the Arkansas Philharmonic Orchestra. He is also the associate music director of the Ohio Light Opera and principal guest conductor of the Sinfonia Chamber Orchestra of Krakow, Poland.
 “Polovtsian Dances” from Borodin’s opera “Prince Igor” was an excellent selection with which to open the concert. Under the baton of Byess, the lovely melodic side of the piece was imbued with lyricism that could be easily associated with the sensual dances for the women, but the rougher and tougher side of the piece (associated with the male dancers) needed more urgency and a faster tempo. Still, the finale, had an frolicking sweep of sound that tickled the ears.
Clark has held the principal tuba of the Oregon Symphony since 1999, and has been a frequent soloist with orchestras in the Pacific Northwest. Besides the PSCO this season, he will play solos with the Vancouver Symphony (Washington), the Corvallis-OSU Symphony, and the Oregon State Wind Ensemble. Whoever said that tuba players never get the spotlight?
Besides being the principal pops conductor of seven orchestras (Rochester, Oregon, Vancouver, Florida, Detroit, Dallas, and Seattle), Tyzik is an acclaimed composer and arranger – and he plays a mean trumpet, too.  His “Four Dances for Tuba and Orchestra” calls upon the soloist to traverse a musical ballroom with a light step. Clark answered the challenge with expertly honed phrasing. The “Children’s Song” was playful and featured the accompaniment of hand-clapping from members of the orchestra. Clark played a very pleasant melody during the “Jig” and finished it with a basement-certified low note. He gave “Tango” a dusky and dark ambiance and finished the suite with a robust “Spanish Dance.”
For the second half of the concert, the orchestra also gave a spirited rendition of the” Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia” from Khachaturian’s ballet “Spartacus.” The lush, melodic themes – at times carried by the cello section – were often at the forefront while several orchestra members created beguiling solos, including concertmaster Dawn Carter and principal clarinetist Alicia Charlton.
Byess impressively conducted the “Suite” from Stravinsky’s “The Firebird” ballet from memory, and the orchestra responded with a radiant performance. Dramatic crescendos and decrescendos helped to paint a picture of the exotic story of an evil king, an enchanted forest, a heroic prince, a beautiful princess, a magic egg, and an equally magical firebird. Despite some intonation problems (for example, the cellos in the first movement), the musicians more than conquered the piece, and the final movement, “Berceuse et Final” glowed. The expressive playing of Brad Hochhalter, principal oboe, and Allan Stromquist, acting principal horn, in their extended solos were among the highlights in this performance.  
Byess conducted the concert with straight-forward, easy to understand style. He seemed to communicate very well with the orchestra, and that should help him in his quest for the music director position.

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