Thursday, April 7, 2016

Haydn-inspired OSO concert ends with windmill-twirling Don Quixote

Guest review by Nan Haemer

I enjoyed the programming of the Oregon Symphony concert performed at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Saturday, March 19th immensely. In the introduction to the concert, Conductor Carlos Kalmar explained his theme of “School of Variations,” and the program lived up to that.

First up was Johannes Brahms's “Variations on a Theme by Haydn" played with no pause between movements. I lost count of the variations at some point, but just trying to keep track of them kept me more aware of the movement of the theme and the color shifts. The opening was stately and gracefully done, the sound well-balanced between the winds and strings. This was a great introduction to the rest of the piece. The orchestra showed off terrific musicality throughout: subtle and soft when needed, beautiful gentle horns and bassoon, and lovely unisons of flute and clarinet with well-shaped phrases. Variation 7 especially had sweet low celli and basses playing an almost Viennese sounding dance with stretched beats that breathed like a lover’s catching breath. Very poignant. I heard all voices clearly in the Brahms, when soft or fuller as in the Finale where all the instruments re-proclaimed the theme clearly before fading out to a last trumpet call.

Next on the program was a smaller ensemble for Haydn’s Symphony #90 in C Major. The transparency of the sections reminded me of the first time I heard Glenn Gould play Bach. I could hear every part, every counter-melody clearly and equally. The tuning of the winds in the opening struggled, but eventually gelled. The flute solo and the brass ensemble was great. The lower string pizzicato section shifted into a more muscular Haydn in the middle with the other strings, then back to a dance! Principal bassoonist Carin Miller rocked the second movement with trills and register key flips done lightly. This was followed by a clear and warm flute solo by principal Martha Long with easy and confident grace notes. The strings' decrescendos on upward ending phrases were amazing. At some point it did sound like someone’s string peg loosened or a string broke, but it was fixed quickly. Horns and brass in the third "Menuet" movement were super. The fourth movement, an "Allegro Assai," had some intonation problems in upper strings. The orchestra took a BLISTERING pace, especially well played by the bassi and celli as the orchestra raced to … a few false endings! The audience, though perhaps forewarned via a hint in the program notes, could not figure out if the piece was truly ending. Yet another musical joke by Mr Haydn, well done by the OSO.

There were some Baroque improvisations by the oboe and flute in the second movement and perhaps in the final false endings as well, but it wasn’t completely clear when and where they were happening. I think they started with their best and most complex improvs first, instead of building. But they DID improv, not something you hear everyday from the OSO!

Third up was Richard Strauss's “Don Quixote." Have you ever seen a Tuba mute? “Now that’s a MUTE!” was all I could think. Also on stage was a windmill/storm machine in the percussion battery. So you know it’s going to be fun. And it was!

This piece had the most forces onstage, including the featured solo cellist, Christian Poltéra. The opening was drunk. Clearly Don Quixote had been sampling some Spanish wine. Let me clarify: Don Quixote is what is called a tone-poem. I’ve been asked “what’s a tone-poem?” by a lot of my friends. I think of it as music that is so composed as to portray a story line, the music making pictures in your head of the action in the story. Strauss was a master at it, and the opening of Don Quixote put me immediately on the plains of Spain, slightly inebriated! In keeping with the "School of Variations" theme of the concert, the middle movement of the Strauss is entitled “Theme and Variations”. Strauss also wrote some of the most difficult orchestra music to play. Most was very well played, but I think I have heard tighter playing overall in past concerts by the OSO.

One of the standouts in the Strauss was the principal clarinetist Bharat Chandra. I’m a recovering clarinetist -- playing the low register without over-blowing and sounding blatty is HARD. He played with a rich, round, and beautiful tone throughout, both in his opening solo and again at the end when he played with tenderness in his higher register. Fantastic!

The entire viola section had numerous soli sections that were very well played. Assistant principal cellist Charles Noble substituted at the last minute as the solo violist and played confidently, accurately, with a handsome tone that was clearly audible. Concertmaster Sarah Kwak had the solo violin parts, and while spot on with feeling, speed, and accuracy, her playing was for the most part barely audible which was a shame.

The featured soloist, Mr. Poltéra, also was buried more often than not, especially in the first movement. When I could hear him, the tone was harsh and at times not in tune. I preferred his lower register and his more melodic playing in the later movements.

Tenor tubist Demondrae Thurman excelled with gorgeous playing. The trumpet and french horn passages that were an octave apart were also excellently done.

The storm section with the windmill/storm machine was flat-out terrific and thrilling. Huge and noble, dark and sad at the same time. The pizzicato section with Poltéra and the bassoon solo was fabulous as well, then moved into all seven french horns and three trumpets playing simultaneously. Wow! The low strings were tender, then combative, then menacing. All of this texture wound from sublime to drunk, to madness and eventually to peaceful resignation at the Finale. All in all, it was an enjoyable journey through variations via Austria and Germany to Spain!
Nan Haemer is a professional singer and voice teacher.

No comments: