Tuesday, May 29, 2007

A Conversation with Robert Kyr

Last week, I talked with Robert Kyr about the recent performance by the Oregon Symphony of his 12th Symphony, his composers symposium at the Oregon Bach Festival, and about his next work. I started out by asking him of his impression of the performance last week.

"I really think that the Oregon Symphony is phenomenal," said Kyr enthusiastically. "It’s in the top 10 orchestras of the US. I have no doubt about saying that because within the course of a year I do a lot of traveling and get to hear a lot of orchestras around the country. In my mind the Oregon Symphony easily compares with the top 10 orchestras in the US. And Carlos Kalmar is one of the finest conductors today."

"The Schubert Unfinished… you’ll never hear it performed better than the way the Oregon Symphony did," added Kyr. "A lot of orchestras will just bow and blow through it. They won’t give it the sort of weight and expansiveness that is part of its nature. The second movement is rarely as serene as it’s intended to be. This performance had everything. It was just phenomenal. The way the second movement unfolded and the each time the beautiful solo line came back. The oboe solo was just exquisite. Just the right tempo. The relationship between the solo and the orchestra was incredible. The conductor knows pacing and drama and knows what’s appropriate for any given movement. If you consider the sound that he was able to evoke from the orchestra in the Schubert, then my piece, and finally the Strauss. Each piece is very, very different. That’s the mark of a great orchestra with a great conductor: each piece has its own world. Stylistically, each piece really shines. There were connections such as the themes of conflict and reconciliation between those three pieces and he brought them out, too. I was thrilled about the performances of all the pieces every evening."

Kyr founded the Oregon Bach Festival Composer’s Symposium in 1994, and it has been an extremely successful program.

"We’ve had many wonderful composers in residence," said Kyr. "Our first one was Arvo Part. That was a very special situation. We had a translator from Estonia for him. He rarely does symposiums. He felt at home and comfortable. The symposium forms a community. People work well together under a spirit of cooperation. He spoke for over two hours and took question. His wife was there and two of his kids as well. Everything he said related to music had a poetic and philosophical to it. We also have had John Harbison, Judith Weir (from Scotland), Lou Harrison, George Crumb – it was during his 75th birthday and we celebrated that with 13 pieces commissioned in his honor – Murray Schafer from Canada (he had a lot to say about music and education), and Veljo Tormis – theme was conflict and reconciliation. Tormis spoke about the struggles of his own country and the role of music during the revolution One of his pieces is God Protect Us From War. That's one of his finest pieces. He is one of the greatest choral composers."

"This year, we’ve invited Martin Bresnick, professor of music at the Yale School of Music, to be our composer in residence, and Lisa Moore as our artist in residence," added Kyr. "She is the pianist in Bang in a Can. Her concerts are legendary. Bresnick and Moore are husband and wife."

"The premise for this summer is making music together," explained Kyr. "We are trying out a new model this year, inviting composers, composer/performers, and performers. They will work in collaboration with the composer in residence and the artist in residence. There is a whole new layer of activity that is performance based. We’ve got the largest number of applicants (over 130) for 55 places, and people are still calling. There are master classes of all sorts and Lisa will be performing four new works by participants. Three wild nights improv cafes. Participants are bringing all of the instruments that they play. So this will have notated compositions and improvisation. Also a composer’s gamelan concert. So many people have signed up for it that I’ve split it up into three groups. We're calling it the "Gamelan der Tausend." Each is composing a short piece for gamelan. Composers are encouraged to combine any instrument they would like with gamelan."

Somehow Kyr still finds time to compose.

"My next big project is an hour-long piece called A Time for Life," explained Kyr, "which will be performed in November in Portland by Cappella Romana. It’s on the theme of the environment. I’m creating the text myself from source texts. One of the source texts is an orthodox service for the environment. A monk from Mt. Athos was a wonderful poet on spiritual topics. He was commissioned to create this service in the 1960s. I’ll also use prayers and invocations from around the world. I’m creating a musical drama that will use the entire space of the hall. The audience is inside the piece. There is no outside. No passive spectator is allowed."

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Keeping up with Gregory Vajda

I had coffee the other day with Gregory Vajda, the resident conductor of the Oregon Symphony, and found out that he's a busy fellow. He'll be conducting the donor's appreciation concert this Friday and extra concert at George Fox University in Newberg.

On June 16th he'll conduct the Texas Festival Orchestra at the Round Top Festival in Round Top, Texas. The program will feature the US premier of Vajda's Duevoe as well as Franz Liszt's Les Preludes, Symphonic Poem and Bela Bartok’s Bluebeard's Castle with soprano Krisztina Szabo and baritone Istvan Kovacs. We heard Szabo sing a few Handel arias with the Oregon Symphony last year, and she was fabulous.

At the end of June, Vajda leads the Budapest Concert Orchestra MÁV at the National Museum in a concert consisting of Weber's Second Symphony, Haydn's Horn Concerto and the Schumann’s First Symphony. Then on July 11th he'll lead the Grant Park Music Festival's orchestra in a concert with gypsy violinist Roby Lakatos.

"Roby Lakatos is the most amazing violinist," added Vajda. "He is short and stocky with a mustache like Salvador Dali's. He’s a Hungarian gypsy. Joshua Bell loves to play with him. He can play for three hours straight and now break out in a sweat. He has a gypsy band that can go back and forth in styles: gypsy, jazz, Serbian folk music, classical – it’s just the easiest thing in the world for him. He makes it look likes it’s the easiest thing on earth. He plays to perfection. It’s just clean and clear and no mistakes and no limits."

Based on Vajda's comments, I had to take a look at a couple of video clips on Lakatos' web site, and he and his playing are just the way that Vajda described him, but even better. Check it out!

Vajda will conduct the Oregon Symphony in several concerts in Portland's parks in August, culminating with the Waterfront Concert at the end of the month.

Maybe he'll find time to compose another piece along the way.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Oregon Symphony keeps getting better and better

The Oregon Symphony ended its season with an impressive concert on Sunday evening, displaying some terrific playing in all parts of the orchestra. The orchestra performed Franz Schubert's Symphony No. 8 in B minor (aka the "Unfinished"), a world premiere of Robert Kyr's Symphony No 12, "Armed Man Variations, and Richard Strauss' "Ein Heldenleben" ("A Hero's Life"). This well-shaped program, traveling from the melancholy valleys of Schubert's great work to the brighter, sunnier landscapes revealed in the pieces by Kyr and Strauss.

Under Kalmar's leadership, the orchestra performed a beautifully crafted Schubert Eighth. The basses began with a wonderfully dark, woody sound, like a large animal in the woods, and then the violins filled in the canvas with a stream and the leafy trees. Then I heard the oboe and the clarinet emerge from this forest scene like a small bird. The way that principal clarinetist Yoshinori Nakao and principal oboist Martin Hebert can make a slightly penetrating sound that seems to come out of nowhere is remarkable.

This performance contained numerous rewarding moments, such as the soft yet strong brass touches. There were many subtle nuances that struck me as marvelous, including how the violins seamlessly passed a theme to the woodwinds. All of this artistry helped to give the piece with more texture and more meaning, all of which allows the mind to explore while listening.

Kyr's new symphony seemed to extend the journey begun by Schubert, guiding us through a landscape of war and one of peace. The music started out with a breezy, carefree, dance-like tune. Everyone in the orchestra (including the two xylophones) seemed to be chirping along when the lower strings agitated the smooth waters with short, snappy comments. Soon the cymbals got into the act, then there was a blare of trumpets and a crash in the percussion. The fight between different parts of the orchestra was underway. It got crazily loud! Then the sound died away, leaving a whispering in the violins. This was followed by a mournful theme of loss and sadness, including a plaintive flute over the grumbling of muted trombones and tuba. Guest concertmaster Elisa Barston played passages that attempted reconciliation between the waring parties. Principal flutist David Buck seemed to play a kind of freestyle solo that pick up the tempo and the music gradually became more uplifting until everyone joined in a grand, joyful ending.

I like the position of the percussion in three different areas of the stage. I talked with Kyr about this, and he said that it would help to represent the different factions in the music as it moved from conflict to resolution. The orchestration is filled with variations on the 15th century tune "L'homme arme" ("The Armed Man"), which was associated with warfare. The audience really liked this work, and some people I talked with said that it was one of the best new works for the orchestra that they had ever heard. Let's hope that a donor will step up to give the orchestra some money to record this piece.

The orchestra returned after intermission to play Strauss' great tone poem. The sudden starting and stopping at the end of the work was thrilling. I loved the nine French Horns and how they were never used to bully any other section of the orchestra. Also, near the end of the piece, the way that Principal John Cox and one of the subs could match sounds exactly over many measures, giving the effect of just one horn playing continuously.

Again, there were so many magical moments in this performance, that everyone in the orchestra could be credited. However, I enjoyed concertmaster Barston's solos the most of all. She showed an incredibly wide variety of sound from soft and smooth and hard and with a little zing. Barston put a real wow factor into the music that seemed to inspire the orchestra to create a superb performance.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Philadelphia Orchestra comes to Eugene

The Philadelphia Orchestra under Christoph Eschenbach is stopping in Eugene for a concert at the Hult Center on May 27th at 8pm. On the program are Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante in E flat (K297) and the Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz. I would like to attend this concert, but I'll be en route to the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina during that time. I am a member of the Music Critics Association of North America (MCANA), and we will have our annual conference there.

Tickets for the Philadelphia Orchestra range from $25 to 65, which is a very reasonable price, considering that ticket prices at the orchestra's home base in Kimmel Center are much higher.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Cellist Nancy Ives at Broderick Gallery

You can catch the Oregon Symphony's fine principal cellist Nancy Ives this coming Friday, May 18th, at 8 pm at the Broderick Gallery. Ives teams up with pianist Susan DeWitt Smith to present

- Suite No. 3 in C Major for Solo Cello by J. S. Bach
- Suite No. 1 in C Minor for Solo Cello by William Bolcom
- Elegy, Op. 24, by Gabriel Faure
- Fantasy Pieces, Op. 73, by Robert Schumann
- Sonata in G Minor for Cello and Piano, Op. 19, by Sergei Rachmaninoff

I like the way that Ives has anchored the orchestra's cello section with her excellent playing and solid leadership. So this concert gives you a chance to hear her up close. Tickets are only $9 at the door. The Broderick Gallery is located at 814 SW 1st Avenue in Portland. Classical Millennium is a co-sponsor of this concert.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Article about Amber Opheim, Portland Opera's Papagena

If you'd like to read about one of Portland Opera's fine young artists and her role in the current production of The Magic Flute, please see my article in livePDX.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Amazing Magic Flute blends humor and beauty

Last night I experienced an exceptional performance of Mozart's Magic Flute. Produced by Portland Opera, this show had a lot going for it: a superb cast of singers, traditional yet fanciful scenery, excellent stage directions, fine playing in the orchestra (with no lag in tempi), expert lighting, wonderful costumes, ... even the supernumeraries (dragons and lions) drew applause. Mary Dunleavy in the role of Pamina lead the way with incredible singing. Jonathan Boyd as Tamino and Jonathan Hays as Papageno were tip top also. Kudos to Christopher Mattaliano for putting this together. The only bad thing for those who would like to see this production is that there are only 20 tickets left for Tuesday night's performance; otherwise, all of the performances are completely sold out.

I would write more, but I have to write a lengthier review for publication elsewhere.

Review of Vancouver Symphony Concert

When I returned from the Vancouver Symphony Concert yesterday afternoon, I had a little more than an hour to write a review of their season finale for The Columbian newspaper. It's always a challenge to find the right words so quickly, but what is life without a challenge.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Vancouver Symphony preview in The Columbian

My preview of this weekend's Vancouver Symphony concert appeared in The Columbian. On the program are pieces by Barber, Stravinsky, and a new work by Ella Mich-Sheriff.

Ja'Ttik Clark to sub with the Detroit Symphony

Oregon Symphony's principal tubist, Ja'Ttik Clark will be playing with the Detroit Symphony at the end of the month. He's subbing for Detroit's principal tubist, Wesley Jacobs, who is recovering from surgery on his shoulder. Clark will be playing Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5, with Leonard Slatkin conducting. The performances take place May 31 through June 3.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Jazz Baby article in Down Beat magazine

I've published an article in the May issue of Down Beat magazine about a new recording called Jazz Baby by Doug Beavers and his ensemble. This recording features Matt Catingub and Linda Harmon singing nursery songs with a big band/jazz ensemble (arrangements by Beavers). Steve Moretti mans the drumset, and the band consists of 20 professional musicians who did the recording at the Skywalker Sound (Lucasfilm Ltd.) in Northern California. If you'd like to hear a couple of the tunes go to the Jazz Baby web site. The CD will be out soon.

The article is not online. So (in response to a comment), I've posted the article here. You can click on it to enlarge it.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Portland Columbia Symphony blooms with Bach and Bruckner

The Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra presented an outstanding concert of Bach and Bruckner at St. Mary's Cathedral on Tuesday evening. The program consisted of Bach's Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C minor (BMV 1060) and Bruckner's Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major (Original Version, edited by Haas). Principal violinist Dawn Carter and principal oboist Brad Hochhalter teamed up as soloists for the Bach; the entire orchestra girded its loins for the Bruckner. Huw Edwards gave crisp directions, and the results were smashing.

Carter and Hochhalter sailed smoothly with elegance through the Bach concerto, and each movement elicited applause from the audience. Carter and Hochhalter seamlessly traded the lead back and forth. Carter used fleet fingering to whip through the fast and tricky passages of the third movement, managing it all with aplomb. Hochhalter maintained a beautiful tone throughout and matched Carter perfectly.

I was surprised by how well the Bach sounded, especially the pizzicato in the strings. I thought that the acoustics at St. Mary's might muddy up the waters. Fortunately, Edwards kept everything under control and didn't let the liveliness of the church nave make the crescendos too loud.

I moved to the balcony to absorb Bruckner's monumental Fifth Symphony. The orchestra sounded magnificent and glorious, especially during the massive crescendos. The very warm temperature in the building caused some of the men to shed their suit jackets, and the heat might have caused a few flaws in intonation. To its credit, the orchestra wisely re-tuned after the second movement. Also, the brass section never overwhelmed the strings, and the overall effect of the performance was impressive.

Again, Edwards chose excellent tempi that worked with with the building's acoustics. Of particular note were the pauses that allowed the huge chords to decay before the next passage began. The orchestra sounded like an organ, just the way Bruckner would've liked it.

The orchestra was augmented by a couple players from the Oregon Symphony: Erin Furbee in the violin section and tubist Ja'Ttik Clark. I like their spirit of collaboration.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Article about property master Ian Hewett and Portland Opera

In today's Columbian, you can find an article I wrote about Ian Hewett, the property master of Portland Opera. It's called He puts the props in opera. I hope that you enjoy reading it.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Oregon Symphony creates memorable concert with the 3 Ss

I heard the Oregon Symphony deliver a wonderful concert on Sunday evening , playing pieces by Scriabin, Schumann, and Shostakovich. Although the monumental artistry required by Shostakovich's Symphony No. 8 in the second half of the program almost overwhelmed everything in the first, I thoroughly enjoyed how the orchestra performed Scriabin's Reverie and Schumann's Concerto in A minor for Cello. In particular, the artistry of guest virtuoso Alban Gerhardt in the cello concerto was magnificent.

The concert began with a tribute to bass trombonist Alan Pierce for his 45 years of playing in the orchestra. Pierce started his run when he was 17 years old. That's when he won his audition with the Portland Symphony (as it used to be known). Wow! I used to play trombone, and I think that I was barely getting past the marching band music stage at that age.

After the applause for Pierce died down, the orchestra began to play Scriabin's Reverie. The musical line in this piece seemed to float around aimlessly until the clarinet, played wonderfully by Yoshinori Nakao, got a hold of a theme and pushed the music downstream a little ways. Still the piece seemed to be haunted by a subdued, quiet melancholy, and in the end it dissolved into a kind of nothingness or a metaphysical state that left me wanting to hear more.

I got a lot more with the cello concerto that came next. I really enjoyed the way that Gerhardt played this work. His artistry was impeccable and he created all sorts of shadings and color in tone. At times he rocked the cello back and forth as he played. His duet with the orchestra's principal cellist Nancy Ives was lyrical and beautiful.

After intermission, the orchestra performed Shostakovich's Eighth with an impassioned purpose that gripped the audience by the throat. There was just a terrific onslaught of sound -- all of it interesting and driven and arduous -- and the overall effect made this rendition the best Shostakovich performance I've ever heard. I'll not forget Niel DePonte pounding on the snare drum, Carla Wilson sounding a shrill alarm with her piccolo, Harris Orem with a hauntingly plaintive English horn, the whispering of the string section, another treacherous piccolo solo by Wilson, the tension driven up in the second movement like someone ringing out a wet towel and then stomping on it, the angry violas in the third movement, the punctuation by the cellos and then the timpani, then everyone flailing away at a supersonic speed like a truly mad person, then a wonderful flute solo followed by a French horn solo, and a squadron of raspy flutes. It was all incredibly forceful and engaging. I applaud Kalmar's conducting of this piece. He had a great vision for it and the audience really got it. The brass were terrific, and I can't wait for the orchestra to tackle a Bruckner symphony. Yes! Bring on Bruckner now!

Addendum: A reader pointed out that I forgot to mention guest concertmaster, Jun Iwasaki, who played very, very well in his debut with the orchestra. Iwasaki is currently the concertmaster of the Canton Symphony Orchestra and Co-Leader of the International Sejong Soloists.

Portland Opera Chorus to sing benefit concert

The Portland Opera Chorus will perform a fundraising concert for colleague James Steele, who has been diagnosed with cancer. Steele has been a member of the tenor section since 1977.

The Portland Opera Chorus is a stellar ensemble and will sing choral selections from Nabucco, Die Fledermaus, Lucia di Lammermoor, and other operas. In addition, members of the chorus will also perform solos from a variety of operas.

The concert will take place at the Hampton Opera Center's Studio Theater (211 SE Caruthers St., just south of OMSI on Friday, June 1st, at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $10 (cash or check at the door).

Sunday, May 6, 2007

PBO beefs up and serves Romantic fare

For their final concert this season, the Portland Baroque Orchestra pressed the expando commando button and increased their bandwidth to 27 members in order to perform several early works of composers associated with the Romantic era. The result was a wonderful concert of music by Schubert, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Carl Maria von Weber that still had its legs in the classical period but also revealed glimpses of the Romantic.

The concert began with Schubert's Overture in B-flat Major, which he wrote when he was 19 years old. This piece starts with a pleasant theme that becomes a lull before the storm as the second theme really takes off in a con brio fashion. The PBO played this piece with grace and agility. Overall, it seemed a bit like dessert... maybe a creme brulee that's followed by bracing cup of coffee.

The second piece, Beethoven's Romance Op. 50 in F major, featured PBO's director Monica Huggett as violin soloist and Adam LaMotte (a member of the violin section) as conductor. Huggett played with excellent expression, and her way of sticking the high notes with a beautiful sound was perfect. The orchestra excelled at transitions from a near staccato to a smooth legato. I wanted flutist Janet Lee to play a little louder, but I also may have been at a slight disadvantage because I was sitting just under the lip of the balcony. Overall, the music was a little sweet but not sentimental.

The orchestra completed the first half of the program with a thoroughly engaging interpretation of Mendelssohn's Sinfonia for Strings, No 12 in G minor. This three movement work is full of wit and charm from the get go. The lower strings of the PBO had some terrific passages that were outstanding in every aspect. The violas in the second movement really set the mood with a plaintive melancholy that was exquisite. The last movement had wonderful decrescendos and a cascade of notes that melted into each other in a delicious way. The furious, animated ending was invigorating.

After intermission the orchestra performed Beethoven's Romance Op. 40 in G major. Beethoven wrote this piece when he was 33 years old. He wrote the Romance Op. 40 when he was 28. I think that the rising temperature from the audience affected the tuning of the violins and intonation was a big of a challenge. Fortunately, the artistry of Huggett as the soloist can overcome just about any obstacle, and she created a warm and elegant sound for this piece.

The concert ended with Carl Maria von Weber's Symphony No. 2 in C Major. The PBO played this tricky work with relish. I really enjoyed the way that oboist Gonzalo Ruiz applied a light, soft touch -- like someone tip toeing through a lawn of freshly cut grass -- to his exposed passages. Hornist Paul Avril was superb. In one or two passages, he seemed to magically alternate between a muted and an open sound. Janet See's flute solo was remarkably clear and beautiful. I (and the audience in general) loved the way that the ensemble could stop and start on a dime in the last movement. That showed the terrific charm and wit of this music.

I'm looking forward to the next time that the PBO delves into the Romantic era. They know how to make this music their own.

Friday, May 4, 2007

My article on the PBO -- in livePDX

I've written a piece about the PBO's Young Romantics concert and Adam LaMotte, one of the musicians who will play in the concert and do a bit of conducting. You can find this article published in livePDX.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Who are these potential concertmasters?

If you would like to learn more about the people who are competing to become the next concertmaster of the Oregon Symphony, you should take a look at their bios, which are stated in the Oregon Symphony Players Association web site. I heard from a Sunday evening audience member that Kalmar announced (during the pre-concert conversation) that he would choose the next concertmaster in the next two weeks.