Wednesday, May 13, 2015

James Carter brings bold sax sound to the fore – Orchestra excels with Rouse, Bernstein, and Barber

Saxophone virtuoso James Carter made a bold statement with both soprano and tenor saxophones on Saturday (May 9) with the Oregon Symphony. His playing of Roberto Sierra’s “Concerto for Saxophones and Orchestra” created a panoply of sounds that showed off the versatility of each instrument and Carter’s supreme mastery. He made squeaks and squeals, full throttle basso growls, lovely burnished sounds, mellow tones, honks, and amusing pizzicato piercings. Carter knows the piece very well, since it was written for him by Sierra (completed in 2000 and premiered in 2002), and its improvisational character plays to Carter’s jazz-oriented virtuosity. But Carter chose to play most of the piece really loud. Except for a section of the lovely second movement, which he played quietly on the soprano saxophone, he pretty much ran over the orchestra. I am not sure why he chose to do that. The audience at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall (which was very full) ate it all up anyway. To be sure, Carter’s performance was amazing, but it would’ve been more amazing if he had chosen to play piano and even mezzo forte once in a while.

Also on the program was Christopher Rouse’s “Concerto for Orchestra,” which he composed in 2008, making it one of the newest pieces that the Oregon Symphony has performed. Musically speaking, this one-movement piece was all over the map. It opened with a pulsating beat that came to a sudden stop, followed by glissando-ing trombones and a wild ride through the strings. Then the trombones proclaimed a series of fervid glissandos that went higher and higher as if climbing a pole. That led to a delightful racket from the entire orchestra, which died down to reveal muted, pulsating sounds from the trumpets and bells. The music then became motionless until the violins and double basses started to move in parallel with the violins near the top of their range and the double basses in the basement of their range. Against this strange pairing, the violas began a mournful commentary, followed by the cellos and later by chattering woodwinds.

The above description covers (inadequately) just a fragment of Rouse’s piece. It demanded virtuosity from everyone in the orchestra. The percussion battery had a field day with a huge assembly of instruments. Principal timpanist Jonathan Greeney had one absolutely wild passage in which he wailed the dickens on everything in his reach. Zachariah Galatis got a few exceptional licks with the piccolo before the finale, in which the orchestra created a raucous celebration.

The concert opened with the “Symphonic Dances” from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story.” The orchestra, crisply directed by Kalmar, played each selection with pizzazz, starting with “The Prologue” in which you could picture gang members walking with a loping gait before Niel DePonte (on the drum set) got them to break into a run. “Somewhere” countered the tension with its sweet and wistful melody. “Mambo” rollicked the atmosphere with sharp accents from the trumpets and timpani. A quartet from the first violin section introduced the lovely “Maria” theme. Somewhere along the way, I noticed that DePonte was reading from a huge placard-sized score that he had to change by laying one placard carefully on the floor. Tender playing by guest principal flutist Michael Gordon during the “Rumble” section signaled the tragic outcome of the story.

Sandwiched between the peppy, louder works was Samuel Barber’s soothing “Adagio for Strings.” The strings of the orchestra played the piece with intensity and sensitivity, striking an excellent balance so that none of the phrases dripped into sentimentality. The one problem with this piece is that it is so often played by classical radio stations, but hearing the piece in a live performance with this caliber of orchestra made the music fresh and satisfying.

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