The Symphony No. 1 by Brahms is usually a shoe-in for the Oregon Symphony, but the rendition I heard on Saturday evening (January 27) at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall was really off-putting because guest conductor David Danzmayr rushed through the piece for some inexplicable reason. It’s not that the symphony must be taken at a leisurely pace, but Danzmayr never let the music breathe. He just pushed the tempos and didn’t let any fermata firm up. On top of that, a lot of the phrases lacked shape and the volume was often mezzo-forte to forte. That resulted in numerous passages in which you could barely hear small groups of instruments or solo instruments when they had the main theme. For example, the French horns belted the famous lines that cascade down in the fourth movement, yet their sound could barely be heard.
It seemed that Danzmayr got carried away by the music or he just didn’t care and decided to let everyone play out as loudly as possible. Maybe he quaffed too many espressos during intermission. Whatever the reason, the piece verged on going out of bounds, yet the musicians made the most of it – to their great credit. Concertmaster Sarah Kwak, principal clarinetist James Shields, and principal oboist Martin Hébert were able to distinguish themselves in spite of it all. The audience, which filled most of the hall, still loved the performance and gave the conductor and orchestra a loud and boisterous standing ovation.
In stark contrast to the Brahms, was an excellent performance of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4 (“Turkish”). It was elegantly played by guest violinist Benjamin Beilman, who warmed up with his orchestral colleagues through the introduction before embarking on the solo passages. He generated a sweet and secure sound that perfectly embraced Mozart’s music in a way that was elegant yet never stuffy. All of the cadenzas sparkled – even the lovely, unhurried ones. Beilman has a wonderful way of making the most difficult phrases look completely natural and effortless. The orchestra supported him with understated grace, and together, they drew applause after the closing of each movement. After finishing the piece, the audience rewarded him with sustained appreciation, and he returned the favor with an encore, the poignant Largo from Bach’s C Major Sonata.
The concert opened with a short blast from the brass with “Concertgeblaas” (“Concert Blaring”) by German composer Detlev Glanert. The ensemble of horns, trumpets, trombones, tuba, and percussion (bass drum, cymbals, and snare drum) delivered an entertainingly jazzy riff that started with extended passages for muted instruments. The tamped-down sound swerved to an unmuted and unbridled big-band, show-tune-like sound and a final clashing jazz chord that sent out a smile across the hall to the listeners.