Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Oregon Symphony and Zeitouni excel with Messiaen and Brahms, Chamayou delivers pristine but dull Chopin

Bertrand Chamayou
A very full house at the Schnitz greeted the Oregon Symphony for its concert of works by Messiaen, Chopin, and Brahms on Saturday, March 22nd. Most folks perhaps were there to hear Chopin’s Second Piano, which featured soloist Bertrand Chamayou. Others were certainly drawn by the Brahms Fourth Symphony. A few undoubtedly were intrigued to hear the orchestra’s first performances of Messiaen’s “The Forgotten Offerings” (“Les Offrandes oubliées”) .All of the pieces were conducted by Jean-Marie Zeitouni, who is the music director of the Columbus Symphony and the artistic director of I Musici de Montréal. Zeitouni made his US-orchestra debut with the Oregon Symphony in the spring of 2005.

Chamayou, a 33-year-old French pianist who has garnered much international acclaim especially for his performances of music by Franz Liszt, gave a pristine interpretation of the Chopin. It sounded lovely yet dull because he kept the volume between mezzo piano and mezzo forte. He never ventured a forte and if there were a piano concerto in need of a forte, this is the one. I thought that perhaps he would raise the volume of at least one phrase in the final movement, but alas, that didn’t happen. So the music, as beautiful as it was, didn't go anywhere. To their credit, Zeitouni and the orchestra played extra lightly so that the audience could hear Chamayoud. But while the result was unsatisfying to my ears, the majority of listeners loved the performance and awarded Chamayou with thunderous applause. He responded with his arrangement of a piece by Schubert. He played it brilliantly and at one volume – mezzo-piano.

Messiaen’s “The Forgotten Offerings” was a real gem of a piece, and the orchestra excelled in creating the three Christian-inspired movements. The first one, “The CROSS,” sounded like someone (Jesus) walking purposefully through a haze toward a goal. The second, “SIN,” was announced by a percussive crash and an outbreak of business on all sides of the orchestra, and it culminated in a sudden crescendo. In the third, “THE EURCHARIST,” the cellos and basses reestablish a somber mood, which was followed by a pause and then came sublime lines from the violins that were refined by the violas and the piece ended on high notes that faded away.

After intermission, the orchestra gave a very strong and emotive performance of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. The strings played exceptionally well throughout. The woodwinds and horns gave a polished delivery. The brass topped it all off with an outstanding sound. Extra kudos for exceptional solos go to principal clarinet Yoshinori Nakao, principal horn John Cox, principal flute Jessica Sindell, and the trombone choir led by principal Aaron LaVere. The drives to climactic passages were thrilling and the finale was satisfying. A larger number of strings may have helped to elevate the dynamic range of the piece to a higher level. Zeitouni is just 40 years old, which is still young in the conducting trade. He is a large barrel-chested man but very agile on the podium, and concertmaster Sarah Kwak gave him a compliment by not getting right out of her chair when asked at the end of the piece to stand (which signals the rest of the orchestra). That gesture gave Zeitouni the heft of the applause.

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