Sunday, October 19, 2008

Oregon Symphony conquers musical continents

Last night at the Schnitz, the Oregon Symphony traversed through Europe, Mexico, and South American in a musical caravan that featured an intriguing mix of pieces by Smetana, Grieg, Golijov, Revueltas, and Ginastera. In talking about the program from the stage, music director Carlos Kalmar acknowledged that the first half had nothing to do with the second. Yet by the end of the evening, the exceptional playing of every piece by the orchestra under the baton of Kalmar demonstrated that these musicians can play the pants off of whatever music is tossed their way – no matter which continent the music came from.

The concert began on a somber note. Just a couple of weeks ago, Ken Baldwin, assistant principal bass, passed away. In memory of Baldwin, the orchestra played the second movement from Beethoven’s Third Symphony, “The Eroica.” The musicians performed the music exquisitely. I sat five rows from the first violins, and they played as if they were one person.

The unified sound in the Beethoven seemed to set the tone for the entire concert. Starting with Smetana’s symphonic poem, “The Moldau,” the musicians took us on a magical trip along this river, which courses through the Czech Republic. It would be easy for the orchestra to chill out and coast on this beloved number, but they didn’t. Instead they gave us a journey to remember. Whether smooth and lyrical or splashy and energetic, the music was all wonder and delight, making it easy to picture each scene along the way. The woodwinds, in particular, deserved extra praise for their seamless playing.

Next on the program came Grieg’s Piano Concerto with guest soloist Valentina Lisitsa. According to the program notes, Lisitsa, is a Bösendorfer artist, so a huge Bösendorfer piano was brought in for this performance. I think that it was an Imperial Bösendorfer, because I confirmed with the stagehands after Lisitsa’s performance that it had the extra octave. In any case, it looked like the largest piano that had ever been placed on the stage at the Schnitz. Yet the size didn’t matter, because somehow Lisitsa got the softest sounds out of this incredible instrument.

Lisitsa has one of the most graceful techniques at the keyboard that I’ve ever seen, and her fluid style is just perfect for the Grieg. Yet she could pounce on the keys whenever fortissimos were needed, and cut through the orchestra. Her whole body bounced along with the lively passages in the third movement, and she showed a wonderful touch in executing changes in tempo and in changing the mood of the music. The orchestra played marvelously throughout, adding color and texture to Lisitsa’s brilliant interpretation.

After intermission, the orchestra performed Revueltas’ “Homenaje a Federico Garcia Lorca” (“Homage to Lorca”), a tribute to the great Spanish playwright and poet. The vivid trumpet call, played by principal Jeffrey Work, in the first movement had a wild flavor and was followed by a busy, rhythmic drive from the entire ensemble before escalating into a series of cat-calls – like kids taunting each other. The sorrowful second movement contained mournful, forlorn sounds, especially from the trumpets and from the tuba, play expressively by principal JáTtik Clark. In the third movement, the ensemble cut loose with Mariachi-like music and the finale was a wonderful mad dash to the finish.

Next on the program came Golijov’s “Last Round,” for two string ensembles. The music had an edgy quality about it, verging on a tango or a least evoking the intoxicating atmosphere of a tango with legs and bodies entangled and then separating and then coming closer again. At one point in the piece, the ensemble began to gallop at full speed, yet I could hear all sorts of precision playing. It was really virtuosic stuff. I recall a gigantic glissando before everyone settled into a quiet, still pond. That was followed by a melody from “My Beloved Buenos Aires,” a beautiful, brief exposed passage for concertmaster Jun Iwasaki, then pulsating basses – all of which evoked the music of Piazzolla.

The full orchestra reassembled itself for the final work on the program. Ginastera’s Suite from the ballet “Estancia.” The sound in the four dances of this suite ranged from full-blooded, straight-ahead and rhythmically driven to carefree and life-is-simple. The orchestra sounded terrific in each dance, and the final number (a malambo) was riveting. Orchestra members moved their bodies to its unrelenting energy, but Jennifer Arnold (who I think played this number under Gustav Dudamel in the Youth Orchestra of the Americas) had the most body English and twirled her viola perfectly at the very end.

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