Saturday, November 5, 2016

Oregon Symphony tricks and treats with eclectic program

Photo by Jack Dine
On Saturday evening (October 29th) at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, the Oregon Symphony offered an eclectic program with music that ranged from the sensitive pastoral to the edgy and boisterous. In a way, program matched up very well with Halloween weekend , because it had a trick or treat flavor to it, as the orchestra’s Music Director Carlos Kalmar pointed out in his introductory remarks to the audience. The first half of the program delivered the trick with some in-your-face music from Leoš Janáček and Sergei Prokofiev. The second offered sweetness with Joseph Swensen playing Barber’s Violin Concerto and the tart-yet-sugary expanse of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor” in an arrangement for orchestra by Leopold Stokowski.

The sublimely lyrical playing of Swensen held the audience in rapt attention during the first two-thirds of the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. Impeccable phrasing by Swensen was matched perfectly by the orchestra, transporting listeners to a restful and sumptuous place in their imagination. Swensen often had a blissful smile on his face as he listened to the orchestra during the sections where he didn’t have to play. That atmosphere was jolted aside in the final movement, when Swensen turned into a perpetual motion machine, displaying an immaculate facile technique as he whipped his way through a seemingly endless blizzard of notes.

Based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s semi-autobiographical novel, Janáček’s opera “From the House of the Dead” takes place in a prison where his main characters are in chains. The Overture to the opera, which the Oregon Symphony played as the first piece on its concert program, contains some thematic material from the opera, but it’s a terrific freestanding piece, and the orchestra nailed its heavy and dramatic emotion with pinpoint playing. The jagged, surging lines, the brief flights of fancy from Concertmaster Sarah Kwak, the billowing chords, and the tragic finality as expressed by the brass at the closing measures were among the highlights of the piece.

Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 3 also has operatic underpinnings, because it was derived from “The Fiery Angel,” an opera that is a “study of neurotic female sexuality set in Reformation Germany,” according to the “New Penguin Opera Guide.” The story follows the obsession that a girl has with an angel, hysterical visions, a transfer of the angel’s spirit to a human, a duel that goes badly, heavy doses of guilt, a convent, nuns, and finally condemnation, torture, and death. Although the opera was never performed in Prokofiev’s lifetime, he distilled much of his music into his Third Symphony, which the Oregon Symphony played with gusto.

After a bombastic opening statement, the first movement of the Third Symphony featured an ultra-smooth clarinet passage, gusty and solemn waves of sound from the lower strings, leading phrases from the bass trombone ( Charles Reneau), and a wonderful melody (perhaps the angel) from the woodwinds that gradually faded into the distance. In the second movement, the orchestra created impressions of climbing and falling with the strings executing clipped glissandos and a sliding sound that finished with a zing. The third offered a piccolo (Zachariah Galatis) entry that crept in from nowhere, a seeming tug-of-war between the strings and the brass, and loud, rising phrases from the brass and French horns. The fourth had an incredibly dissonant, big whacks by Niel DePonte on the big bass drum, ominous colors from the woodwinds and low strings, and a demonic frenzy of a finale. The piece left everyone scorched in their seats.

Stokowski’s imaginative arrangement of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor” received a terrific performance from the Oregon Symphony with basses rumbling, flutes bubbling, the contra-bassoon (Evan Kuhlmann) cranking, the violins, violas, and cellos in fleet harmony, the brass registering a grand expansiveness, the percussion adding a dollop on top. The many exchanges of phrases from one section to another were seamlessly smooth and included marvelous flexes in tempo. Under Kalmar’s baton the orchestra pulled out all the stops to make the piece a superior-grade crowd-pleaser.

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