Sunday, May 24, 2015

Oregon Symphony closes its classical season with Beethoven

Stephen Hough. Photo by Hiroyuki Ito
Monday May 18 saw the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall host the Oregon Symphony for the final night of the '14-'15 classical season. On tap was an orchestral suite by Tchaikovsky, one by contemporary composer Jörg Widmann and Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1.

Widmann's piece, Con Brio, was intensely engaging from an aural standpoint. With musical little themes that began sounding much like Beethoven quickly evolving into soundpieces featuring weird, chuffing aspirations from the winds and the timpanist banging on what for all the world looked like an upside down copper kettle, it was an entertaining cacophony. It was an exercise in special effects for much of the orchestra, with the timpani tuning and detuning audibly as the timpanist pattered on the rim, huffing, wailing patterns by wind and brass players aspirating through various tubes and slapping the bells of their instruments, it was an immediate hit with the audience.

Beethoven was next, featuring soloist Stephen Hough. This being an earlier work by the master, it featured almost nothing by way of the deeply personal, harmonically dense and innovative sturm und drang of most of his more well-known piano works, so a different approach was required. Hough was keenly aware of this and his interpretation left nothing to be desired; rather the music was allowed to stand on its own merits. The orchestra opened with a rather extended, high Viennese classical theme so delightful it was easy to forget one was awaiting the start by the soloist. Hough's delicious cantabile reveled in the exposed, easy melody, highlighting the strength of this opening movement. His entrances were so natural that they seemed to come from the aethir, so that the whole first movement was an organic ebb and flow, with the soloist usually seeming part of the orchestra rather than a separate player.  Hough was never self-insisting, perfectly so since the music didn't have that character either. It would have been easy for this music to sound pedestrian in less capable hands than Hough's and the OSO's, but instead it was charming and arresting. If there was ever a soloist with a 'knack' for rendering this music in such a fashion, Hough seemed to be him.

The Tchaikovsy that comprised the second half was his Orchestral Suite No. 3. Glorious, languid Slavonic melodies were the highlight of the first movement, staggering themselves between the strings and winds. The rest of the piece had problematic moments. Imprecise entrances, not usually a bugbear for this orchestra, did stand out occasionally throughout the piece, with not all sections firing simultaneously when called for. The stentorian theme of the fourth movement was handled somewhat ham-handedly by the winds; not to say there was anything wrong per se, but there wasn't much there that was interesting to listen to either.  Usually the OSO excels with these orchestral show-ponies, but this didn't feel up to their usual par. Concertmaster Sarah Kwak's sultry violin solo was a bright spot--rich and warm, she sounded almost like a violist at times. Late in the game, the closing polonaise was where it seemed to finally come together for the whole ensemble.

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