Thursday, May 19, 2016

Ohlsson and the Oregon Symphony team up for superb Brahms – orchestra goes deep for Hindemith

Playing Brahms Second Piano Concerto with the Oregon Symphony, Garrick Ohlsson proved once again that he is one of the best pianists on the planet. Impeccable technique and remarkable artistic phrasing by Ohlsson showed how far and deep he could go in his performance on Saturday evening (May 14th) at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

Ohlsson is not a diminutive fellow. In fact, his imposing frame seems to make a Steinway grand look like a baby grand. Yet his size didn’t prevent him from creating some of the softest, most elegant tones imaginable, and they contrasted well with the louder and demonstrative passages. Thick textures, complex arpeggios, and thorny cadenzas were like putty in Ohlsson’s hands, and he commanded all of it with an articulate pianism.

Ohlsson’s terrific performance was enhanced by the orchestra, which showed exceptional dynamic control and flat-out great playing throughout the entire piece. Plaintive horn solos (John Cox and Graham Kingsbury), subtle and supple playing by the strings, rhapsodic solos by Nancy Ives, superb contributions by oboist Karen Wagner, and the playful exchange between the soloist and the orchestra in the fourth movement were a few of the highlights of the performance.

The near-capacity crowd gave Ohlsson a long and sincere ovation that brought him back several times. He responded with an encore, the subdued and introspective Brahms’ Intermezzo in E Major, Op 116, No. 6. Ah!

The orchestra showed off its many talents with a sterling interpretation of Hindemith’s “Mathis der Maler,” a three-movement orchestral suite that depicts sections of Mathias Grünewald’s famous alterpiece for the monastery at Isenheim in Alsace. Guided by Music Director Carlos Kalmar, the orchestra issued a noble yet lightly airy opening statement that expressed the radiantly mystical “Angelic Concert,” and caused much of the audience to applaud. The slow second movement, “Entombment,” featured lovely exposed passages for flute (Martha Long), oboe (Martin Hébert), and clarinet (Todd Kuhns). The absolutely unified sound of the violins, cello, and violas – all on the same note for a while – was one of the remarkable aspects of the fourth movement, “Temptation of St. Anthony.” But it also contained percussive jolts, fast segments, twisting angular phrases, and a massive, majestic ending with brass blazing, and that really resonated with the listeners.

The concert began with the Schumann’s Overture to “Genoveva,” an opera that has been long forgotten, because it apparently lacked dramatic energy. Fortunately, its Overture has plenty of purely musical energy to keep it alive on the stage, and the Oregon Symphony gave it a performance that sparkled, delving into its dynamic contrasts (in particular, the upsweeping crescendos) with relish. The performance by the orchestra of this piece was its first ever, and, because of its short length (under ten minutes), it floated by rather quickly. So it would be good to hear it again some day.

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