Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Flutist Sindell lights up Portland Chamber Orchestra concert

Guest review by Curtis Heikkinen

Over the years, I have tended to confine my concert attendance to the Oregon Symphony. This season, however, I am making an effort to check out the lesser known, but still vitally important, ensembles that grace our region. Case in point: the Portland Chamber Orchestra (PCO), which presented the opening program of its new season this past weekend (October 18) at the Agnes Flanagan Chapel on the campus of Lewis and Clark College. The innovative and intriguing program, entitled “Northern Lights,” consisted of works by the Finnish master Jean Sibelius and the Danish composer Carl Nielsen.

Music director Yaacov Bergman began the concert with a moment of silence in memory of the victims of the recent tragedy in Roseburg. It just so happened that the opening work of the program, Sibelius’ brief “Andante Festivo,” was ideally suited to follow this remembrance. Originally scored for string quartet, but later arranged for string orchestra and timpani, the work is still played at solemn occasions in Finland. Maestro Bergman elicited sensitive and expressive playing from the strings and timpani. It was an affecting beginning to the concert.

Nielsen’s engaging Flute Concerto followed. Jessica Sindell, formerly the principal flutist of the Oregon Symphony, was guest soloist. The concerto, which consists of two movements, features very striking musical dialogue between the soloist and other instruments in the orchestra, such as the trombone, timpani, clarinet, and bassoon. There was even some brief dialogue involving the viola. Sindell provided many memorable moments during her time with the Oregon Symphony. I am pleased to report that her playing remains first rate. She consistently demonstrated a pleasing tone and effortless mastery of the entire register of the flute as required by this demanding work. She was sympathetically accompanied by Bergman and the orchestra with generally well-judged balances, though on a couple of occasions the orchestra did threaten to overwhelm Sindell. Overall, this was a fine performance of this attractive work.

The concert concluded with a most unusual presentation of Sibelius’ incidental music to Maurice Maeterlinck’s play “Pelleas et Melisande.” For this performance the PCO presented a semi-staged version complete with actors and visual art. This was said to be a Northwest premiere performance. In general, I found the performance most effective when the actors were unaccompanied by the orchestra and vice versa. When both spoken word and music were simultaneously combined, I found my attention divided, making it difficult for me to fully appreciate either the spoken dialogue or the music. I must confess that I also sometimes secretly wished that the actors would “sing” in the manner of Debussy’s opera when accompanied by the orchestra. Perhaps, this was a reflection of my love for Debussy’s opera. Regardless, however, of how one felt about the combination of spoken dialogue and Sibelius’ music, one must applaud the PCO for thinking outside the box and presenting the play and incidental music in an innovative manner.

Certainly, it was hard to find fault with the performance. The actors, Heidi Hunter as Melisande, Gregory Lucas as Pelleas, and Mary MacDonald-Lewis as Yniold were all excellent. I was especially taken with Leo Daedalus’s portrayal of Golaud, the jealous husband of Melisande. His questioning of his own child Yniold about the relationship between Pelleas and Melisande was most harrowing.

Maeterlinck’s play about doomed love inspired a number of composers to write music based on that work, ranging from Sibelius to composers as diverse as Schoenberg, Faure and, of course, Debussy, whose opera has challenged and confounded audiences since its premiere. Sibelius' music is perhaps the most accessible. Nevertheless, anyone expecting it to resemble his well-known symphonies would be surprised at how it differs from those great works. With regard to the individual performances, Pablo Izquierdo’s English Horn solos were immaculate. The woodwind playing as a whole was most felicitous. I would also compliment the strings for their characterful playing. The rendering of the lovely "Pastorale" was magical, and the beautiful music accompanying the death of Melisande was deftly executed by Bergman and the orchestra. The audience thankfully remained silent as Sibelius’ music slowly faded way and Bergman's arms fell to his side, signaling the end of the piece and leaving this observer with a great sense of satisfaction. Based on what I saw and heard, the PCO clearly merits increased support from the ticket-buying public, as well as additional critical attention.

Curtis Heikkinen became a classical music fan after moving to Oregon over 30 years ago. He is especially fond of 20th Century and contemporary composers. He believes that, in order for classical music to prosper, performers, orchestras, and radio stations must find a way to move beyond standard repertoire.

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