Thursday, November 12, 2015

Oregon Symphony concert travels from light to dark in program of Schiff, Rachmaninoff, and Tchaikovsky

Photo by Marco Borggreve
Shifting from light to dark, the Oregon Symphony presented a program that went from effervescence to broody at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Saturday evening (November 7). Beginning with David Schiff’s short and bubbly “Infernal,” the concert also featured a scintillating exploration of Rachmaninoff’s beloved “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” with guest artist Kirill Gerstein, and an incisive interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s “Manfred Symphony.”

Inspired by “The Infernal Dance of Kachei’s Subjects” from Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” Schiff’s “Infernal” covered a lot of the same territory with a six-minute scattershot-montage that was snappy and witty. While Niel DePonte at the drum set laid down a peppy rhythm, the orchestra quickly got into the swing of things with every section getting a chance to handle one or more of the familiar phrases. Principal trumpeter Jeffrey Work and principal trombonist Daniel Cloutier got in some terrific licks to top it all off. One wonders what Schiff, who teaches music at Reed College, would do with the rest of the “Firebird.”

Gerstein’s sparkling pianism was crystal clear in the Rachmaninoff, but some of the music seemed to rush by too fast. If he and  Kalmar could have taken a more relaxed tempo occasionally, then the piece would have had more warmth. Still, Gerstein’s impeccable performance glowed, and the audience rewarded him with a standing ovation that brought him back to the stage several times. He responded with a breathtaking “Etude for the Left Hand” by Felix Blumenfeld, a Russian composer who was a friend of Rachmaninoff. If you closed your eyes, you could have sword that he was using both hands, and he had such control that the some of the lower tones would linger a bit while a breeze of notes in the upper octaves would dance by.

According to the program notes, 24 years have passed since the orchestra last played the “Manfred Symphony.” Its length (almost an hour) and the moody construct of the piece have made it one of the least-played of Tchaikovsky’s symphonic works. But even a cursory search on the web shows that many orchestras in North America, such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Toronto Symphony, and the Chicago Symphony, have programmed it in recently*.

Inspired by Byron's dramatic semi-autobiographical poem “Manfred,” Tchaikovsky’s symphonic work reflects the tortured emotional state of the hero, who wanders the Alps, filled with remorse over an unnamed tragic event. After encounters with an otherworldly spirits and a descent into a subterranean bacchanal, the hero dies.

Under Kalmar’s baton, the music never became turgid, even when the heavily melancholic theme from the first movement returned in the fourth movement. Right from the start, the bassoons and lower strings created a forbidding atmosphere, and all of the strings weighed in heavily. Throbbing brass choirs and raised French horns, the soulful bass clarinet (Todd Kuhns), explosive percussion with bass drum, cymbals, gong, and timpani highlighted the rest of the first movement. The woodwinds invoked a fairy-like lightness and lovely playing by guest principal flutist Martha Long and guest principal clarinetist William Amsel graced the sweet melody established by the strings in the second movement. The third began with an exquisite solo by principal oboist Martin H├ębert and was capped the by the hunting calls from principal hornist John Cox. The tempestuous fourth movement ranged all over the place, and after the music sank into the depths, the organ suggested a sense of redemption with a stately passage.

(* By searching for program notes for the “Manfred Symphony, I found that the LA Phil did it in 2012, Tronto in 2014, and Chicago in June of this year.)

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