Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Skrowaczewski (92) and Piemontesi (32) show that age doesn't matter at concert with Oregon Symphony (119)

Stanisław Skrowaczewski
Guest review by Phillip Ayers

As I listened to the Oregon Symphony and its guest conductor Stanisław Skrowaczewski (aged 92) and piano soloist Piemontesi (aged 32) on Sunday (November 22nd) at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, I thought of a line from a hymn I remembered from my youth: "Bright youth and snow-crowned age … ". But sentimentality aside, observing the contrast in the ages of these sterling performers was a rarity and something to be savored for a long, long time to come. Concertgoers were treated to an evening of music, ranging from the Classical through the Romantic to 20th century edginess. And it was presided over by the phenomenal Skrowaczewski, conductor laureate of the Minnesota Orchestra and veteran of many other ensembles, including the Hallé Orchestra. He celebrated his 92nd birthday last month and I could not help but marvel as I read the program notes before the concert and then saw him make his way through the violin section before the first offering of the evening. Michael Anthony, in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in an article on Skrowaczewski on his 90th birthday quotes him: "My health is poor, but my spirit is very high." He lives with a pacemaker and has had eye trouble for many years. Still, he goes on. "Off the podium, Skrowaczewski looks frail. On the other hand, standing in front of an orchestra, he seems to gain energy, as if drawing on currents of electricity from the musicians around him." This was evident in his debut with the Oregon Symphony!

Skrowaczewski walked slowly, yet deliberately to the podium, gingerly ascending onto its one step. But then, he lit into Witold Lutosławski's “Concerto for Orchestra,” with an energy that seemed a bit restrained but was not; this conductor was very much in command. A cynic might say this piece is noisy and showy, but I was struck with the composer's expert use of instrumentation highlighted by the shimmering middle movement and the academic passacaglia, toccata and the glorious chorale at the end. As the program notes explain, "The virtuosity of each section of the orchestra is highlighted in the exquisite layering of rhythms and colors that permeate its three movements." But I missed the massive "wall of sound" in spots in this piece, as well as in the Brahms later on, that I guess we Portlanders are used to with Carlos Kalmar's creation of that "wall." Still the Lutosławski work proved interesting, especially in its last movement that began with a barely discernible theme for the passacaglia, introduced by the contrabasses. It was delightful to hear the charming "corale" played mainly by the brass while a string quartet played an obbligato against it. Such subtleties could well have been lost, but Skrowaczewski made certain that they were prominent enough to be noticed.

My concert-companion (my spouse) remarked, as the piano was moved out for the Mozart concerto, quoting the old Monty Python phrase, "And now, for something completely different!" And it was different from the opener, not only from an earlier musical era and its use of a much-reduced orchestra (e.g., a tympani player in the Mozart and six percussionists in its predecessor), but in the artist who came onstage. Francesco Piemontesi, a 32-year-old Swiss pianist and possessor of an impressive list of performances, sat down to play Mozart's last piano concerto. "Doing the math," one could realize that Mozart himself was a little older than Piemontesi's age when he played this concerto, his last public appearance of his brief life. Here was "bright youth" - both the composer's and the performer's - at work in a fluid, non-bravado, subtle, even understated way.

This concerto - sunny, elegant and bright - did not reveal the many personal difficulties the composer/performer was enduring. The multiple cadenzas, rather unusual for a single concerto, as the notes remind us, were executed with great grace and skill by Piemontesi. In listening to other performances of this concerto, I noticed how heavy-handed some performers are, especially with the virtuosic passages. There was nothing of that showiness with this artist; it was straightforward and brilliant. Despite some intonation problems and an awkward entrance by a horn, this was a near-perfect performance of this gem in my estimation. At its end, as applause resounded, the pianist and the conductor greeted one another with the nonagenarian putting his hands on the shoulder of the 30-something as though to bless him and encourage him. Sixty years between these men were brought together in that tender and memorable moment.

After the intermission, Johannes Brahms' excellent third symphony was offered. "You can't go wrong with Brahms" might be a hackneyed expression, but it is so very true. I wondered how many times Skrowaczewski might have conducted this work (he has made a recording of it, according to the notes) so that he would not have to use a score. From where I sat, I noticed the score was on the podium but was never opened. Committing all the Brahmsian nuances to memory is no small feat for any conductor, much less one in his nineties! Michael Anthony, cited above, said that, with age and its limitations, the conductor uses small gestures. There are no wild movements of the arms or swooping around at the podium: just simple gestures. And it is amazing to me that much of the time the conductor did not look at certain sections of the orchestra, but trusted them to know - and play - their stuff.

Throughout its four movements - and the last in a minor key with which Brahms broke with symphonic custom - the listener was fully engaged and involved in the craft of the composer's skill, drawing from themes such richness and subtlety. Clara Schumann is said to have exclaimed in her thank-you note to Brahms when he presented her with the score to his Third Symphony, "What a work! What a poem! … I could not tell you which movement I loved most." This symphony is massive, but touches of sweetness and tenderness are always there. That such emerged from the pen of a somewhat cantankerous old bachelor is always endearing somehow.

In the third movement, the theme of which later became a popular song, "Goodbye Again," is played a number of times by different sections and soloists in the orchestra. Particularly beautiful was the horn solo by principal John Cox that was played with exquisite beauty. New members of the orchestra, Martha Long (principal flute) and James Shields (principal clarinet), while not beginning full-time until next fall, were present and in the orchestra for this concert.

Before the evening's concert began, OSO president Scott Showalter remarked that this concert is the first to be given after the treachery perpetrated in Paris, Beirut and Mali recently. Art will always provide us with a grace and a profundity, even in the worst of our public tragedies, he said, paraphrasing Leonard Bernstein 52 years ago on the occasion of John F. Kennedy's assassination before he conducted part of Mahler's "Resurrection" symphony on television. Sunday's concert helped many to get a perspective on tragedy redeemed by the art of music.

Phillip Ayers sings with the Portland Bach Cantata Choir and for ten years sang with the Portland Symphonic Choir. From 2001-2007 he produced and hosted "Choral Classics" on All Classical radio. A retired Episcopal priest, he and his spouse are former church organists and choir directors and now enjoy "sitting in the pew" at church and concerts.

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