Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Pianist Natasha Paremski and the Oregon Symphony remind us why live music is so irreplaceable

Natasha Paremski
The Oregon Symphony showcased its own prodigious talent, as well as that of guest pianist Natasha Paremski on Saturday night at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. The evening consisted of a short work by Stravinsky, a delicious set of jazzy pieces for piano and orchestra by Paul Schoenfield, and Gustav Holst's magnum opus The Planets.

Maestro Carlos Kalmar joked about the short works the symphony typically opens with as being 'parking overtures,' but also alluded to the desire to showcase shorter works of great importance, and Stravinsky's Fireworks was no exception. Flashy, brilliant and brief, it served as an appetizer for the challenging Schoenfield to come.

Schoenfield's Four Parables for Piano and Orchestra was a fascinating undertaking. Opening with  Rambling Till the Butcher Cuts us Down, it was aptly moody and sinister to start. Sinuous winds followed by an exploding piano, elephantine shrieks from the horns and intense, rapid syncopated rhythms combined to form a jazz danse macabre. Paremski demonstrated tremendous power, a necessary prerequisite for staging this difficult work. She showed speed, agility, and frankly a bit of daring, fortunately so because massive amounts of all were needed.

The second parable, Erlking, began with a walking electric bass line underlying fascinating little vignettes from various instruments, as though one were looking at, or listening to the world through warped but not unkindly lenses. Paremski hammered and sighed through a stride-style piano segment like a bacchanalian lounge player, pulsing with demoniac energy.

The final movements, Elegy and Dog Heaven must have required every bit of stamina and fortitude the brilliant Paremski had to offer: the incredible tremolando passages, thundering glissandi and titanic scalar motives whirling in rapid succession were like hot jazz fusion from the center of a star.

The second half consisted entirely of Holst's signature work, The Planets. Hearing it live is a vivid reminder of why this work is so beloved (and so imitated), and the Oregon Symphony is an ensemble perfectly capable of delivering every bit of wonder this work has to offer.

Opening with maybe one of the most famous fanfares in all the repertoire, the brass were magisterial and the strings brimming with menacing pomp for Mars, Bringer of War. And what a relaxing and placid refuge was Venus, following Mars. Mercury the Winged Messenger was full of delicate twittering strings and nuanced texturing; no one was phoning in this chestnut. Kalmar kept it lively and vibrant, and the orchestra was right there with him. Though not programmatic per se, one couldn't help but envision the jovial Jupiter striding through the spheres like some smiling behemoth. The mysterious harbinger of doom Saturn...one could feel the footsteps of inevitability, one's own demise approaching. The mystery of the final movements, Uranus and Neptune, between the warm and intimate caress of the violins and the ghostly women's choir...the OSO and guests Women of Portland State Chamber Choir and Vox Femina are a stunning reminder of why live music is so tremendously important, and how the experience so impossible to replicate in any other medium.

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