Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Oregon Symphony goes into overdrive: Copland, Barber, Bizet, and Liszt

The Oregon Symphony performed a long and varied program that covered a lot of territory on Sunday evening. The concert featured works by Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Franz Liszt (two pieces), and Georges Bizet. Superb guest pianist Arnaldo Cohen threw in a gem-like encore as well; so the concert lasted almost three hours. The musicians and music director Carlos Kalmar stayed focused and delivered exciting interpretations of each piece on the program.

The concert began with Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” which he scored for four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, and tam tam. The brass and percussionists of the Oregon Symphony gave this short work a strong, muscular sound that resonated well with the audience, which responded enthusiastically.

Next came Barber’s “Souvenirs,” a delightful, off-balance glimpse into the hotel ballrooms of a bygone era dating back to Barber’s youth. Each of the six dances in “Souvenirs” had something to catch my ears. The wandering clarinet line and light strings gave the “Tempo di walzer” a serendipitous flavor. The “Schottishe” furiously swirled away at its conclusion. Plaintive and graceful woodwinds paint the “Pas de deux.” A whimsical viola led the “Two-step,” the “Hesitation-Tango” lingered exotically, and the muted trumpet solo added to the dash in the “Galop.”

The final piece on the first half of the program was Liszt’s Concerto No 2 in A major, which I usually count as an uninteresting piece. However, Cohen’s brilliant playing expressed a wide range of colors, varied the tempi, and made the piece come alive and sing. A spontaneous standing ovation ensued, and Cohen responded with an encore, “Odeon” by Brazilan composer Ernesto Nazarath. That brought down the house a second time.

The second half of the program continued with Bizet’s Symphony No. 1 in C Major. The orchestra’s string sections got a full-body workout, playing the tricky passages cleanly and with panache. Principal oboist Martin Hebert played the seductive oboe theme in the second movement terrifically. The French horns also had many shining moments. The extended pizzicato section in the low strings in the Allegro vivace was fun to watch and hear.

The concert concluded with Franz Liszt’s “Les Préludes” (Symphonic Poem No. 3), a piece that traversed a huge, emotional landscape. The orchestra impressively mounted the big, majestic parts of this work when everyone is going full bore. The musicians also tenderly expressed the quietest moments when the harp could be heard clearly (not a small feat in the Schnitz). I also loved the section in which the violins and cellos started a conversation that was commented upon by the bassoons and basses. Kudos all around to the orchestra and Kalmar for delivering a thrilling ride.

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