Thursday, February 5, 2009

Orli Shaham inspires Portland State University musicians

With Orli Shaham at the piano, the PSU New Music Ensemble kicked it into high gear and gave a fine performance of Olivier Messiaen’s “Oiseaux Exotiques” at Kaul Auditorium last night (February 4th). Their collaboration, led by conductor Ken Selden, created a fanciful collection of bird calls, which zinged about the hall impressively and became the high point in concert that featured the ensemble in Franghiz Ali-Zadeh’s “Crossing II” and PSU Symphony Orchestra in Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 (“Italian”).

Shaham introduced the Messiaen piece with three excerpts that included calls by the catbird, the cardinal, and the wood thrush. That provided an excellent context for the audience, which had probably never heard this work before. The New Music Ensemble started the piece demonstratively, but after Shaham started to play, they picked it up a notch. Shaham captured the colors of the bird sounds and the spiky, almost herky-jerky movement of birds. The students really got into it as well and the nervousness of the music came alive. The dramatic cut off in which everyone suddenly stops was executed perfectly, and the final countdown of chords closed out the piece very well.

The New Music Ensemble opened the concert with the Oregon premiere of Ali-Zadeh’s “Crossing II.” This piece was very quiet and almost meditative most of the way. A sustained note from the violin and the viola provided a background upon which other notes from other instruments were dropped in a seemingly random fashion. This gradually transitioned into a more rhythmic and episodic section that had a distinct (but not over pronounced) Middle Eastern flavor which tones that wiggled and slid around. I was hoping to the music break into some kind of enthusiastic whirling dervish kind of thing, but it remained reserved and seemed to cross back to the opening statement.

After intermission, the PSU orchestra delivered a solid performance of Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony. A few phrases in the strings were muddied and there were some intonation problems, but the students caught the spirit of the piece in fine fashion. They reserved the best for the last, because the fugue in the fourth movement displayed seamless exchanges of the theme between various sections. Also, it should be noted that principal clarinetist Thomas Salata showed a lot of sensitivity in his playing throughout the entire work.

A final note, the audience turn out was fairly good (at least 300 people) and at least 80 percent of them were students. They were very polite and listened very attentively. They also didn’t cough. It would be great to see this audience at the other concerts in town.

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