Mark-Anthony Turnage’s newest work had a lot of snap, crackle, and pop, but to what end? I couldn’t figure it out after listening to the world premiere of his “Symphonic Movements”, which was played with vigor and precision as far as I could tell, by the Oregon Symphony at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on October 28. The 57-year old English composer already has written over 50 works for orchestra, chamber ensembles, choral ensembles, and solo vocalists, and is well known for his witty and sometimes jazz-inflected pieces. The piece that he wrote on commission for the Oregon Symphony, titled “Symphonic Movements,” was dedicated to the memory of English composer and pianist Richard Rodney Bennett, who died in 2012. But Turnage’s music had the barest of elegiac sentiment and was fairly celebratory in spirit.
Divided into five movements designated by beats per minute (quarter note = 69, 76, 96, 72, and 120), “Symphonic Movements” used the orchestra primarily as a percussion instrument. The music was sophisticated, often rhythmically propulsive, and frequently accented by slaps, whaps, and blats even during its few restive moments. In the fourth movement, one of the percussionists played an odd device called the lion’s roar harp. It created a sound that was ostensibly like a roar of a big cat, but if I hadn’t read the program notes for the instrumentation, it sounded for the world to me as if someone had a terrible case of flatulence.
Much more elegiac, at least in the traditional sense, was the “Andante” from Schubert’s Symphony No. 10 in the arrangement by Peter Gülke, the music director of the Brandenburg Symphony. The music was slightly sad, gentle, and noble at the same time. One can only wonder what Schubert would have done with that fragmentary work had he lived longer.
Pianist Garrick Ohlsson has been a frequent guest with the Oregon Symphony over the past 40 years. When his large frame settles in behind the keyboard, I am almost tempted to feel sorry for the piano, yet this bear of a man has one of the gentlest touches that any pianist could wish for. His playing of Samuel Barber’s Piano Concerto was finely chiseled with impeccable technique from beginning to end. He articulated the opening phrases with verve, but they were never overstated. He captured the lyrical second movement, “Canzone,” deftly, giving it a sense of longing and elegance. The final movement veered wonderfully in the opposite direction with a wildly pulsating, spikey, and scattershot array of pyrotechnics.
The audience called Ohlsson to the stage several times and he obliged them with an encore, Alexander Scriabin’s “Poem” Opus 32, No. 1. The sound was lush and lovely, as if sculpting a poem of flowers.
The orchestra under the baton of music director Carlos Kalmar gave Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 (“Jupiter”) a crisp and energetic performance that was filled with dynamic contrast and nuance. Switching his baton to his left hand and guiding the musicians with his right, the orchestra created a delicious sense of weightlessness in the third movement. The fugue statement in the fourth with its five interwoven motifs wrapped up the piece gloriously.
P.S. The actual world premiere of the Turnage piece took place the night before in Salem. However, Turnage asked for a slight change afterwords; so the audience in Portland heard a revision of the world premiere.