Monday, February 17, 2014

After a crazy weekend, Oregon Symphony helps restore balance to Portland's music world

Mark Wigglesworth.
 Photo by Sim Canetty-Clarke
Monday, February 10th at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall saw the Oregon Symphony present a varied program consisting of  Lutoslawski, Beethoven, and a cello concerto by Schumann, featuring guest conductor Mark Wigglesworth and guest artist Johannes Moser on cello. Following a wild weekend of concert cancellations or alterations all across Portland's musical map due to weather (including OSO's Sunday presentation of this performance) it was nice to hear business as usual at the Schnitz.

Opening with Witold Lutoslawski's Symphony No. 4, the OSO wasted no time getting right into a meaty program. The opening was spookily inviting and immediately engrossing--uneasy atmospherics, an ominous, discordant clarinet coming in almost like an afterthought but steadily growing more insistent, and scritching, toneless glissandi on the harp all added to the effect.  Later it continued with a plaintive meowing on the violin and a ghostly tootling on the portative that was almost not there at all. All throughout Lutoslawski paints a gloriously inviting sound picture, intuitively realized by the OSO. What does one make of it all? Listening to a piece like this reinforces the importance of live music: as much as I enjoyed this work, it wouldn't be first on my list of CDs I wanted for Christmas. But listening to the work live, it works its way into the consciousness on a subterranean level, demanding to be heard--it will not accept anything less. It is more like Pollock than Rembrandt...maybe it does or doesn't represent something specific, but boy does it command attention.

The Schumann Concerto in A minor for Cello was a stark contrast to the opening work.  Moser brought intensity and passion to a remarkably controlled and deft touch. He was not afraid of bold attacks and employed a delicious, ungainly decussation of his cello to achieve certain effects. During the more rapid pieces he stared directly at the violins, as if challenging them to meet him for a duel in the midst of the tempest, and from an ensemble perspective this was nicely done--the final accelerando was as natural and unforced as one could want. Despite occasional pitchiness from the soloist, this was more interesting and enjoyable than Schumann typically is for me.

The second half was Beethoven's beloved  Symphony No. 7 in A major. The OSO brought a crispness to the tone and tempo--no malingering over favorite phrases was allowed.  When done properly, it's always fun to hear an old chestnut dusted off--no need for showing off or grandstanding from performers, and as a listener it's most enjoyable to leave off contextualizing in these circumstances--let the rest of the 19th, 20th and the infantile 21st century stand aside, and one can hear the music for just what it is, to hear it as when one was a child. The conductor and orchestra must provide the space for that to happen, and guest conductor Mark Wigglesworth certainly allowed for that. The deftness with which OSO approached this--not belaboring Beethoven's elemental use of syncopation letting it live right where it's supposed to in the music--'it is what it is,' to use the parlance of our times. The glorious swelling and receding of the dynamics in the first movement, the solemn chanting from the low strings as the counterpoint reveals itself in the second, and the way the third snaps us out of our reverie with its unflagging pace and exuberance--these are all things we expect from such a well-known work, and perhaps the greatest praise one can say about a performance is that everything that should have been there was, and in its proper place and time. When that happens, the music is glorious, important and satisfying, and Wigglesworth along with the OSO provided all that in this outing.

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