On Friday, October 10, the Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra presented a concert at the First United Methodist Church in downtown Portland. This ambitious program (called 'Musical Revolutionaries') consisted of Elliot Carter's Elegy for Strings, Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major (Op. 107,) and Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A Major (Op. 92.)
The concert opened with Carter's Elegy, a short work programmed in honor of the composer's 100th birthday this year. The PCSO has a fine string section, and it shone in this lush if somewhat monochromatic composition. There was a good deal of homophonic movement in the piece, but director Huw Edwards brought out a rich, woody timbre from his strings so it never became stale.
Portland native Ariana Falk, a PYP alum who returned from Boston to perform this work, played brilliantly in the difficult Shostakovich concerto. Starting right from the opening scherzo-like theme of the Allegretto, her interpretation of this deeply introspective work was convincing and engaging. There were, however, some problematic moments from the orchestra. During the first movement they were seldom completely in sync with the director and the soloist. The orchestration in this work was obviously difficult and intentionally disjointed, but it often felt as though everyone was playing catch-up.
Still, Falk was able to shine despite these problems. Although there were times during some of the fortes in the Moderato when Falk was almost completely drowned out by the orchestra, this movement and the following Cadenza were the most powerful moments of the evening for me. I was able to get completely lost in its hypnotic threnody; Shostakovich has so many terribly deep, important things to say, and through the somber majesty of her playing Falk allowed us to hear those. She displayed precise, melodic articulation in the highest registers of her instrument, and maneuvered deftly through a forest of difficult double- and triple-stopped pizzicato phrases during the Cadenza. The final Allegro displayed some of the same problems as the first: although it was marked con moto, it felt plodding, and sometimes seemed as though Edwards was having to work far too hard to get the sound he wanted from the orchestra.
The Beethoven 7th, however, left nothing to complain about. Edwards galloped along fearlessly right from the outset, and the players responded, delivering a precise, crisp rendition of this time-tested favorite. All throughout the phrasing was purposeful and the dynamic contrasts sensitively rendered. The little fughetta during the Allegretto was exact and delightful, and the players never flinched at the almost breakneck pace of the Scherzo; the final Allegro con brio was brilliant indeed. To use a sports analogy, Edwards and the PCSO left everything on the field; one felt the exciting Romantic sensibility of the concept of Man as the ennobled creature at the bright center of the universe. Listening to a Beethoven symphony makes one proud to be human, and listening to it played live with as much verve as the PCSO displayed makes one proud to be a Portlander. They will reprise this concert Sunday afternoon at 3 pm at the Good Shepherd Community Church in Boring.