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.

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