The Oregon Symphony most recent concert series contained a wonderful mix of music, ranging from the Classical to Modern, including three pieces that received their first-ever performances with the orchestra. The enticing program consisted of works by Joseph Haydn, César Franck, Ottorino Respighi, and Henri Dutilleux with cellist Alban Gerhardt as the soloist. As you might suspect, Dutilleux’s “A Whole Distant World” was a first for the orchestra, but Franck’s “The Breezes” and Haydn’s Symphony No. 80 were also newbies. The wide variety of sound, styles, and musical techniques required by these pieces as well as Respighi’s “The Pines of Rome,” which concluded the concert spoke well of the orchestra’s abilities and the artistic vision of it music director Carlos Kalmar, especially in light of the fact that all of the works were played extremely well at the concert I attended on Monday evening (January 16) at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Due to the weather conditions – below freezing with streets that consisted of rutted, icy lanes – the hall was a little over half-filled, but that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the musicians who played with élan.
Gerhardt, a frequent soloist with the orchestra during the Kalmar era, impressively played the Dutilleux from memory. The piece, inspired by Baudelaire’s poem “La Chevelure” (“Hair”), has five movements entitled “Enigma,” “Gaze,” “Surges,” “Mirrors,”, and “Hymn.” Even though the music had a pointillist, percussive bent, Gerhardt played with a poetic touch that bought out its introspective qualities. Pizzicatos and brief glissandos darted in and out – sometimes with Gerhardt leading the way and the orchestra echoing. Some of the high, lyric lines seemed to be at a faster pace than the lower and slower passages from the ensemble. Agitated and highly articulated section had a superb lightness. Brief crescendos dissolved into quiet passages that evoked an otherworldliness. Towards the end of the piece, Gerhardt played a series of notes that skipped about like a kid in a playground. Perhaps it was a distant world after all.
Franck’s “The Breezes” was also inspired by poetry. In this case, it was Leconte de Lisle’s poem that describes the winds (daughters of Aeolius) caressing the landscape. The lovely melody swept along pleasantly with little surges that culminated in a crescendo before subsiding again. It had elements that reminded me of the composer's famous Symphony in D minor.
After intermission the orchestra returned to a more familiar sonority with Haydn. The stormy beginning gave way to a leisurely dance-like theme and an exchange between the two followed in a teasing sort of way. In the second movement, the orchestra conveyed a soothing refinement with its playing of the lyrical melody. The third contrasted a crisp march with another delightful dance-like tune. The fourth featured fleet stings and lots of syncopation that made some of the passages seem slightly lop-sided. It was all brilliantly played by the orchestra.
To conclude the concert, the orchestra gave a resplendent performance of Respighi’s “The Pines of Rome.” It kicked off with sparkling colors that expressed the delight of kids playing in the Villa Borghese gardens. The second movement conjured the somber reverence of the catacombs (kudos to the off-stage trumpeting of Jeffrey Work) and a grand procession. The third suggested a lovely hillside scene in the evening with the full moon glowing through the clouds (kudos to the slowly penetrating clarinet of James Shields. Kyle Mustain on English horn called the forces of his orchestral colleagues (with four extra trumpets and two trombones in the balcony) to create the majesty of a Roman legion marching along the Via Appia for a glorious finale.
Joining the orchestra for the Respighi was Gerhardt. That’s one of the many superb qualities of this exception musician. He just quietly came on stage and plays with the cellists as if he has been a member of the orchestra forever. I have seen him do this in every other concert that he has played with the orchestra. That speaks so well of his commitment as a musician and as a human being. The world needs more people like him.