Saturday, December 27, 2014

Mark O'Connor and clan bring jazzy bluegrass to Portland's holiday scene

Grammy-award-winning violinist Mark O’Connor made Portland his final destination for his annual Appalachian Christmas tour and thrilled a fairly full house at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on December 22nd with his virtuosic playing. For people like this reviewer, who know O’Connor primarily through his “Appalachia Waltz” hit (which he made with Yo Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer), but don’t follow his circuit through the year, the concert, presented by All Classical FM (KQAC), was a bit of a mixed bag. The main thing was the sheer genius of O’Connor’s fiddling, which shifted effortlessly between folk, jazz, bluegrass, and something slightly classical. It’s sheer genius, even when amplified (as were all of the instruments in this concert). All of the numbers on the program were done with a bit of Appalachian-inflected twang, but it seemed strange that a couple of traditional Appalachian Christmas tunes like “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “I Wonder as Wander” were missing from the program.

O’Connor didn’t do everything by himself. He performed with a tight-knit ensemble that included violinists Maggie O’Connor (who is also his wife) and Carrie Rodriguez, banjo player Cia Cherryholmes, mandolinist Forrest O’Connor (who is Mark O’Connor’s son), guitarist Joe Smart, and bassist Michael Rinne. Rodgriguez, Cherryholms, and Forrest O’Connor also sang several of the pieces.

Starting with an upbeat arrangement of “Jingle Bells,” the listeners got an excellent sense of the improvisational talent of O’Connor and his clan. Rodriguez provided evocative and energetic vocals for “Winter Wonderland,” “Blue Christmas,” “The Christmas Song,” and “Jingle Bell Rock.” Cherryholmes used a belting bluegrass style for her solos, but her voice became strident and piercing at times, which especially didn’t work well for “Away in a Manger.” Forrest O’Connor’s soft baritone worked well in “Ol’ Blue.”

The highlight of the evening occurred when Mark O’Connor gave a solo improvisation based on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” His jazz phrasing reminded me of some Stephane Grappelli-like licks but he did all sorts of other fiddling that included subtle nuances between tones (mircro-tones) and an inspired passage in which his thumbs and fingers drummed on side of the violin. His playing brought down the house.

Twangy renditions of “Sleigh Ride” and “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” went down well, but O'Connor's Appalachian arrangement of the “Carol of the Bells" didn’t have any bell-like quality at all. Still, this concert was a smashing success for the spellbound audience. A thunderous standing ovation brought the musicians back out on the stage for a foot-stomping, bluegrass inspired “Joy to the World.”

Friday, December 26, 2014

Bach Cantata Choir raises spirits with its Annual Holiday Baroque Concert

You have to take this report on the Bach Cantata Choir’s Annual Holiday Baroque Concert with a grain of salt because I’m a member of the choir's tenor section, but I have to say that this concert (held on Friday, December 19th at Rose City Park Presbyterian Church) was very satisfying in many ways. First of all the choir and orchestra performed Parts 2 and 4 of Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” with genuine feeling and confidence. Since we have performed this music in previous years, we are a lot more comfortable and consequently are getting out of the scores, looking at our conductor, Ralph Nelson, and interpreting the music. The “Ehre sie Gott in der Höhe” (“Glory to God in the highest”) chorus, which is very tricky and demanding, flew by at a quick, pace that expressed a heightened sense of joy.

Soprano Nan Haemer, alto Irene Weldon, and Kevin Walsh distinguished themselves with excellent solo work. But tenor soloist Byron Wright stole the spotlight with phenomenal singing of “Frohe Hirten, eilt, ach eilet” (Joyful shepherds, haste, ah hasten”), which has an incredible stream of 32nd notes. It should be noted, though that Haemer and soprano Dorothea Gauer Lail excelled in the echo aria “Flösst, mein Heiland” (“Oh my Savior”) and Jolanda Frischknecht put a bell-like tone on “Fürchtet euch nicht” (“Be not afraid”).

For the second half of the concert, the choir and orchestra performed Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s “Messe de Minuet pour Noël” (“Midnight Mass for Christmas”). This piece, with its dance-like qualities, featured a number of treacherous tempo changes. We negotiated all of them pretty well, except one, which took a couple of measures before everyone lined up. Sopranos Laurie Vischer and Dorothea Gauer Lail, alto Rachel Thomas, tenors David Foley and Brian Haskins, and bass Paul Sadilek successfully negotiated their solos. It was unfortunate that some of the passages for the alto were so low, because it was difficult to hear Thomas when she had to sing those basement notes. Mary Kusaka, Laurie Vischer, and Paula Holm Jensen did a fine job with their carol selections.

The choir tried something different this year, opening the concert with the main church lights turned off and using flickering light from hand-held candles (battery operated), and singing the chant “Puer Natus in Bethlehem” (“A boy is born in Bethlehem”) from memory while walking from the nave of the church to the stage. We did alright but another rehearsal would have made it more aligned and smoother. Our rendition of Michael Praetorius’s version of “Puer Natus in Bethlehem” (performed with all of the lights turned on) went quite well. It should be noted that we used our candles to end the concert (with the “Agnus Dei” of the Charpentier), and that was a splendid wrap.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Gaffigan, Watts, and Oregon Symphony team up for sonic journey via Sibelius, MacDowell, and Copland

André Watts
On Saturday evening (December 6th) at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, the Oregon Symphony scored with a trifecta of seemingly unrelated works, taking the audience on a journey from the resignation of Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony to the optimism of MacDowell’s Second Piano Concerto and Copland’s Suite from “Appalachian Spring.” Guest pianist André Watts, who has frequently appeared with the orchestra, was the featured soloist in the MacDowell, and James Gaffigan, who is the chief conductor of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, led from the podium.

Despite its bleakness, the Sibelius No. 4 was intense and enjoyable – right from the start with the distant, low growl from the bassoons and bass violins. The somber mood was broadened by solo passages, played evocatively by principal cellist Nancy Ives, and heightened by the horns, which created a sense of tragedy. The orchestra built a series of surges only to recede into a vague blankness. Wiggly sounds form the oboe, light, skipping tones from the violins, and sudden entries from various sections of the orchestra suggested springtime before the timpani quickly closed down the second movement. The third featured a mournful statement from the horns and a pervasive melancholy. The fourth began with a blitz from the violas, which was followed by equally fleet work from the cellos. Then the woodwinds got into it, led by wild riffs by principal clarinetist Yoshinori Nakao. An extended pizzicato passage for the cellos and violas sounded terrific against a melodic line for the violins. Soon the brass jumped in, and the orchestra gave us the feeling that things might coalesce into a triumphant statement (like the Second Symphony), but it didn’t. It just uncoiled into individual efforts and then the entire piece stopped.

James Gaffigan

During the applause, Gaffigan waded into the orchestra to acknowledge principal woodwinds, the entire horn section, timpani, and principal string players. Hats off to the orchestra for delivering such a vibrant interpretation of this oft neglected piece. In the hands of a lesser ensemble, it would be a terribly dull affair.

Watts demonstrated incredible pianism in the MacDowell, finishing some of the phrases with a little extra panache. The eruption of sound from the keyboard in the first movement was a powerful statement, and Watts was right at home with the big Romantic arpeggios and other virtuosic flourishes that abound in this work. Passages were impeccably shaped and, with the orchestra, he brought out the distinctly optimistic, American tone of the piece. Solo contributions by assistant principal bassoonist Evan Kuhlman and assistant principal clarinetist Todd Kuhns added luster to the performance.

You can’t go wrong with a piece like “Appalachian Spring,” one of the most popular classical pieces ever written by an American, but you need virtuosic musicians, because there are so many exposed parts and a blip, or a flub, or a late entry would be incredibly awkward. The plaintive clarinet of Nakao, the sparkling flute of principal Jessica Sindell, the peppy trumpet of principal Jeffrey Work, and the sweet phrases of concertmaster Sarah Kwak were just a few of the individual contributors who made this piece a pleasure to hear. I just wish that the orchestra could have afforded six more string players so that when the brass played at full volume, we could still have heard the swirling strings.

This concert marked Gaffigan’s third appearance with the orchestra (he was previously here in 2009 and 2010). He has a natural, graceful conducting style and a genuine affinity for the musicians. Hopefully, he will be returning to the podium again soon.