It is a rare event in the classical music world when a brand new work can upstage one of the great works in the cello repertoire and one of the best concertos for orchestra, but that’s what happened on Saturday (March 11) when the Oregon Symphony gave the world premiere of Kenji Bunch’s “Aspects of an Elephant.” Bunch’s new piece, a concerto for orchestra, immediately connected with the audience in such a way that it stole the spotlight from fine performances of Dvořák’s Cello Concert and Barber’s “Souveniers.” After the concert, audience members at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall were still talking about Bunch’s new concoction, a real tribute to Bunch and the musicians who played superbly under the direction of Carlos Kalmar.
Commissioned by the Oregon Symphony to celebrate its 120th anniversary, “Aspects of an Elephant” painted the parable of the six men who are in a very dark room with an elephant. After each man touches a part of the elephant, he proclaims what the elephant is like. They get into an argument and the finale, the elephant is revealed.
Bunch reached into every section of the orchestra to create an intriguing mixture of sonic colors. A suspenseful introduction (“Into Darkness”) featured sharp taps from the percussion. The first episode (“The Elephant is a Whip”) accented a plethora of nimble sounds with a slapstick. The next episode used humorous grunting sounds from the brass and light, swishy strings. Mellifluous flutes got into the mix to suggest the elephant’s ear as a silk cloth. With a ground round from the bass violins and rising tones from the trumpets, it was easy to imagine a tree. Streaky, wiggling sounds from the violins created the movement of a snake, and expanding lines from the brass assembled a throne. Sporadic blurts from all sides of the orchestra evoked the men arguing with each other until they are overtaken in the finale with the grandiosity of the elephant in all its glory.
In many ways “Aspects of an Elephant” reminded me of Bernstein’s Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium”) in which the orchestra assumes the role of different philosophers in their discussion about love. But Bunch’s piece incorporated a larger orchestral palette to paint an equally vivid picture. The audience responded to the music with unbridled enthusiasm, which brought Bunch back to the stage a couple of times.
The concert opened with a radiant performance of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto that featured Harriet Krijgh, a rising star from Holland, as the soloist. Krijgh expressed the beauty of the music with great feeling, creating a beautiful tone from beginning to end. With her long arms, she caressed the cello and excelled in all facets – except that she needed to play even louder when the orchestra heightened its crescendos. That’s a problem that many solo cellists have with the Schnitz. It is not the best hall for instruments or singers in the lower ranges.
The program concluded with Barber’s “Souvenirs,” an orchestral survey of popular dances that were a staple of the grand hotels of New York City in the early Twentieth Century. The violins exuded elegance when they tapered off the ends of their phrases in the “Waltz” movement. The slightly languorous sentiment of the “Pas de deux” was nicely set up by the harp, flute, oboe, and bass violin. The muted, yet sprightly trumpets and trombones mingled delightfully with the piccolo in the “Two-step,” while the English horn, brushes and cymbals slid back and forth seductively with the clarinets, cello, and violas during the “Hesitation-Tango.” Everything swirled and sped up for the “Galop” before ending snappily.
It should be noted that Bunch, who has been playing in the viola section for the past couple of years, took a seat with his colleagues in order play the Barber, and when he came out on stage, he was greeted with another volley of applause. That response from the audience seemed to summarize the good vibes of the evening. People actually did leave the hall with a smile and in good spirits.