Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Review: Oregon Symphony presents smorgasbord of music

Oregon Symphony’s concert on Sunday evening contained an intriguing sampler of pieces from three eras of music: late Baroque, Romantic, and the Twentieth Century. On the program was music by Johann Christian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Richard Wagner, and Bohuslav Martinů. Two of the work received their first performances with the orchestra and the Bach piece required an unusual formation for two chamber ensembles.

Juanjo Mena, principal conductor and artistic director of the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra, directed all of the works on this eclectic program. Mena has appeared with the Baltimore Symphony several times since his North American debut with them in 2004. He is scheduled to conduct that orchestra again in November.

For Bach’s Sinfonia in E-flat major for Double Orchestra, Opus 18, No 1, the musicians split into two chamber ensembles, which included a modicum of brass and woodwinds plus a harp in the middle. The violas sat behind the violins, which looked odd, but didn’t hinder the great sense of interplay between the orchestras.

J. C. Bach, the eleventh and last son of J. S. Bach wrote some subtle melodies into this piece, and they were nicely exchanged between the ensembles. All of the strings showed plenty of nimble finger-work and the accelerandos were clear and crisp. Often the ensemble on Mena’s left would start a theme that would be joined, parried, or echoed by the opposing ensemble. This exchange resembled a pleasant conversation between friends, and the overall effect was delightful, though not very deep.

After finishing the Sinfonia, the orchestra took up its regular formation in order to play Martinů’s The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca. Martinů wrote this work in 1955 after become inspired by Francesca’s famous paintings in the Church of San Francesco in Arezzo, Italy. This piece relates to the paintings in an impressionistic manner rather than in a literal sense.

Right from the outset, the orchestra painted a large canvas of sound. I heard chirping violins and woodwinds, trumpet calls, shortened glissandos, warm melodies for the cello section, a spooky bass passage, and so many arresting combinations of sounds that it was hard to surmise. Some passages seemed to be influenced by jazz. I did have the sense of opaqueness in the music as if we were seeing or hearing through layer after layer until we arrived at a restful place at the very end.

Few recordings of the Martinů piece are available, but one of them, curiously enough, was done by the Oregon Symphony’s conductor laureate, James DePriest with the Malmo Symphony on the BIS label. It was odd that DePriest never programmed this piece with the Oregon Symphony because it would favor his strength to conduct broad, sweeping works.

After intermission, the orchestra performed Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in D major, Opus 36. Beethoven wrote this cheerful, exuberant work during a time when he realized that he was going deaf, an incredible feat that defies imagination.

Under Mena, the orchestra played the Beethoven with balance, but it seemed to lack some fire. The crescendos and decrescendos didn’t lead anywhere in particular. I thought that Mena could’ve asked for more variation in tempi or tried to bring out some aspect of the piece, but didn’t get that sense. So, the interpretation was more polite than interesting.

The concert concluded with Wagner’s Overture to Tannhäuser, a brilliant piece that worked well as a final number for the evening. The bassoons were very pronounced in the opening passage of the pilgrim’s theme, but everyone in the orchestra got a chance to shine. Principal clarinetist Yoshinori Nakao gave his exposed solo the calm, clear sound that was just perfect. The attentive audience was completely quiet when the orchestra returned to the pilgrim’s theme and gave the orchestra a hearty round of applause after the final, majestic chords died away.

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