Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Gaffigan, Watts, and Oregon Symphony team up for sonic journey via Sibelius, MacDowell, and Copland

André Watts
On Saturday evening (December 6th) at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, the Oregon Symphony scored with a trifecta of seemingly unrelated works, taking the audience on a journey from the resignation of Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony to the optimism of MacDowell’s Second Piano Concerto and Copland’s Suite from “Appalachian Spring.” Guest pianist André Watts, who has frequently appeared with the orchestra, was the featured soloist in the MacDowell, and James Gaffigan, who is the chief conductor of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, led from the podium.

Despite its bleakness, the Sibelius No. 4 was intense and enjoyable – right from the start with the distant, low growl from the bassoons and bass violins. The somber mood was broadened by solo passages, played evocatively by principal cellist Nancy Ives, and heightened by the horns, which created a sense of tragedy. The orchestra built a series of surges only to recede into a vague blankness. Wiggly sounds form the oboe, light, skipping tones from the violins, and sudden entries from various sections of the orchestra suggested springtime before the timpani quickly closed down the second movement. The third featured a mournful statement from the horns and a pervasive melancholy. The fourth began with a blitz from the violas, which was followed by equally fleet work from the cellos. Then the woodwinds got into it, led by wild riffs by principal clarinetist Yoshinori Nakao. An extended pizzicato passage for the cellos and violas sounded terrific against a melodic line for the violins. Soon the brass jumped in, and the orchestra gave us the feeling that things might coalesce into a triumphant statement (like the Second Symphony), but it didn’t. It just uncoiled into individual efforts and then the entire piece stopped.

James Gaffigan

During the applause, Gaffigan waded into the orchestra to acknowledge principal woodwinds, the entire horn section, timpani, and principal string players. Hats off to the orchestra for delivering such a vibrant interpretation of this oft neglected piece. In the hands of a lesser ensemble, it would be a terribly dull affair.

Watts demonstrated incredible pianism in the MacDowell, finishing some of the phrases with a little extra panache. The eruption of sound from the keyboard in the first movement was a powerful statement, and Watts was right at home with the big Romantic arpeggios and other virtuosic flourishes that abound in this work. Passages were impeccably shaped and, with the orchestra, he brought out the distinctly optimistic, American tone of the piece. Solo contributions by assistant principal bassoonist Evan Kuhlman and assistant principal clarinetist Todd Kuhns added luster to the performance.

You can’t go wrong with a piece like “Appalachian Spring,” one of the most popular classical pieces ever written by an American, but you need virtuosic musicians, because there are so many exposed parts and a blip, or a flub, or a late entry would be incredibly awkward. The plaintive clarinet of Nakao, the sparkling flute of principal Jessica Sindell, the peppy trumpet of principal Jeffrey Work, and the sweet phrases of concertmaster Sarah Kwak were just a few of the individual contributors who made this piece a pleasure to hear. I just wish that the orchestra could have afforded six more string players so that when the brass played at full volume, we could still have heard the swirling strings.

This concert marked Gaffigan’s third appearance with the orchestra (he was previously here in 2009 and 2010). He has a natural, graceful conducting style and a genuine affinity for the musicians. Hopefully, he will be returning to the podium again soon.


Curtis heikkinen said...

Insightful review as always, James. The Sibelius symphony is an odd duck. The orchestra did a nice job with it, but I can see why it is rarely played. Though the performance was fine, the MacDowell concerto seemed little more than the typical romantic style bluster. I guess I'm tired of concertoes, both piano and violin, written in that style. I certainly enjoyed the Appalachian Spring. Even after hearing it a million times on classical radio stations, it still retains some freshness. Like you, I like Gaffigan as a conductor. He took some hits for his opening remarks but I found them amusing and helpful.

James Bash said...

Thanks Curtis. I actually enjoyed his opening remarks, too. They put me in a good mood and gave the music a framework. Thanks for your comments.