One of the best things about the Oregon Symphony concert on Saturday evening (April 7) at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall was how well John Corigilano’s percussion concerto, “Conjurer,” complimented Maurice Ravel’s ballet music, “Daphnis and Chloe.” The Corigliano piece, featuring the orchestra’s artist in residence, Colin Currie, was remarkably subtle and soft, which allowed the Ravel to be more expansive yet maintains its refined character.
Corigilano divided “Conjurer” into three movements defined by types of percussion instruments. The first, “Wood,” offered an array of pitched wood instruments such as the marimba, xylophone, and wood blocks that Currie tapped, struck, hammered, prodded, and scratched. The assortment of tones, separated at times by brief pauses, worked especially well against the string accompaniment.
In the second movement, “Metal,” Currie created a layered web of sounds by playing the vibraphone, cymbals, tubular bells, and tam-tams (gongs). The notes seemed to lengthen and then decay into a contemplative and almost static stance. The third, “Skin” involved several drums, including timpani and a big bass drum that Currie played with his hands rather than with drumsticks. Accented with kick drum and sporadically charged up by the orchestral brass, the music became stirred up before it all subsided and settled down with little pauses to almost mirror the beginning, as if coming out of nowhere.
Unlike previous percussion concertos, Currie didn’t have to dash between the large setups of instruments. Between the first and second movements he seemed to move in slow motion from on percussion battery to the next while Music Director Carlos Kalmar kept conducting, and that caused some chuckling from the audience.
The orchestra has performed the suite from “Daphnis and Chloe” many times, but the concert marked the first time that it chose to do the entire hour-long ballet. Because the music tells a idyllic love story of a shepherd and shepherdess (with some pirates tossed in), it would have been advantageous to have some supertitles to indicate each movement. Otherwise, it was easy to close one’s eyes and ride the sonic ebb and flow and picture a seascape with birds flying about. But Ravel did have the story in mind, and the sensuous arabesques of sound were nonetheless deftly delivered by the orchestra, including a wonderfully effective wind machine (aeoliphone) in the percussion section and choruses from Portland State University (prepared by Ethan Sperry).
Aside from the lush and gorgeous sound of the orchestra, high points included the “Grotesque Dance of Darcon,” which had a wonderfully odd wa-wa from a trio of trombones. Another point was the percussive slap that shot over the orchestra to signal the abduction of Chloe. Virtuosic playing from Concertmaster Sarah Kwak, and principals in the woodwinds and brass added to the enchantment. Overall, the strings shimmered, the myriad of ascending and descending lines flowed like a rushing stream, and the final sonic abandon brought the piece to a fantastic conclusion.
The choruses, consisting of the Portland State Chamber Choir, Man Choir and Vox Femina, were confined to the loft area behind the orchestra, which was disadvantageous, because their sound, while blending nicely with the instrumentalists didn’t have a lot of volume or intensity. More singers would have given the performance the requisite sonic weight to make the evening more memorable.