Saturday, November 12, 2016

Principal wind players show their stuff in Oregon Symphony concert with guest conductor Hans Graf

Seven principal wind players from the Oregon Symphony delivered an impressive performance of Frank Martin’s “Concerto for Seven winds and Orchestra on Monday evening (November 7) at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. They were the main attraction in a concert that also featured Hans Graf, the Conductor Laureate of the Houston Symphony, in his debut with the orchestra. Martin’s quirky piece, which some scholars have described as a blend of Stravinsky and Ravel, was placed between two Romantic constructs: Schumann’s “Overture, Scherzo, and Finale” and Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (“Pastoral”). All three pieces were played with keen sensibility by the orchestra, but fine performances by the soloists in the Martin deserved highest praise.

The soloists in the “Concerto for Seven Winds and Orchestra” were Martha Long, flute, Martin Hébert, oboe, James Shields, clarinet, Carin Miller Packwood, bassoon, John Cox, French horn, Jeffrey Work, trumpet, and Daniel Cloutier, trombone. They conveyed the fragmentary and percussive musings of the piece with élan. In a way, it was an elegant series of mutterings, stutterings, and sporadic utterings that came across as a conversation with the orchestra. There were no lyrical phrases to hang your hat on. The soloists expressed brief statements in pairs (for example, flute and clarinet or oboe and bassoon), trios, and other groupings. Most of the soloists deftly played at least one series of treacherously high notes that were way out of the normal range. Shields executed several ultra-smooth and soft entries. Cloutier wonderfully created the mellow and almost sad trombone line at the end of the second movement. Work delivered a lick that reminded me of a circus number. To top it all off at the end of the piece, Jonathan Greeney expertly handled a wicked timpani part.

The concert began with Schumann’s “Overture, Scherzo, and Finale” which he didn’t classify as a symphony because it doesn’t have a slow movement. The orchestra deftly conveyed the ponderous opening before breaking free into lovely melody followed by a series of sweeping phrases that are dotted with rising glissandos. The third alternated smartly between a stuttering march and a gentle bucolic melody. The third was vigorously playful and ended with a strong, joyful finale. Throughout the piece, the orchestra seamlessly transitioned from smooth, elongated phrases to sudden, punchy ones that jabbed left and right, giving Schumann’s music a polished and glowing interpretation.

Graf showed a somewhat restrained style as he guided the musicians through Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. He didn’t use big round-house gestures during the famous thunderstorm movement, but one of his most overt gestures was to the bass violins to play louder towards the end of the final movement.

The orchestra responded to Graf with great depth and feeling. Some audience members might have noticed that the principals who had played in the Martin got the night off… well, everyone except Shields who filled in at second clarinet. Lovely lyrical playing by the entire ensemble created the brook-side setting, including some impeccable bird songs by the woodwinds. The rustic barn dance had a good-nature stomp to it, topped off by sections with lighter footwork. The thunderstorm was bracing and expertly set up the tables for the smooth ride into the final movement.

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