I am not sure why Jeffrey Kahane rushed through Schumann’s Piano Concerto when he played it with the Oregon Symphony at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Monday evening (February 27), but rush he did. Maybe he was bored with the piece, had too many espressos, or was just in an odd state of mind. Whatever the reason, Kahane sped through the first movement so quickly, it seemed like he just wanted to get it over with asap. All of the notes were there, but he didn’t provide any dynamic nuances at all. It was really weird. The second movement was thankfully a little slower and Kahane did deliver some of the delicate moments with grace. He returned to his lightning fast technique in the final movement, which was appropriate since it is marked “Allegro vivace.” The audience responded to the joyous finale with great enthusiasm, enough applause to bring Kahane back to the stage three times. He reciprocated with variations on “America the Beautiful” that he improvised with great sensitivity – a stark contrast with the way that he handled the Schumann.
Despite the quick pace of the Schumann concerto, the orchestra still managed to shine under guest conductor Christoph König. Oboist Karin Wagner and clarinetist James Shields expressed their solos elegantly, and the cellos enhanced the melodic theme in the second movement with lush and robust playing.
The orchestra excelled with its performance of John Adam’s “Slonimsky’s Earbox,” a piece that the orchestra co-commissioned in 1996. The music wandered all over the place – a tribute to the wide-ranging mind of conductor/composer/writer Nicolas Slonimsky – sometimes careening from one section of the orchestra to the next. The punchy dialogue between the brass and swirl of sound from the rest of the orchestra had a galvanizing effect that led to a myriad of intriguing sonic combinations. One moment the flutes would concoct a phrase that bubbled up into the rest of the woodwinds. The next moment the orchestra would sync up into a tic toc segment that featured muted trumpets, and then everything seemed to dissolve into a slow, sonic melt. At one point the marimba, xylophone, and vibraphone were going like mad, and the strings created a chattering sound. Somewhere in the midst of the excitement things quieted down so that Joël Belgique’s lovely viola solos could be heard. König expertly led the orchestral concerto with a clear command of the constant changes in meter and the lively pace.
The last half of the concert was devoted to Edward Elgar’s “Enigma Variations,” which a finely honed performance from the orchestra. From the stately beginning through the many variations – which contain clue-like references to friends of the composer – to the grand finale, the many sections of the orchestra took over the spotlight with élan. Witty repartee between strings and woodwinds, robust and crisp brass, and hugely emotional crescendos and decrescendos were impressively executed and wonderfully conveyed the beauty of Elgar’s masterpiece. Solos by Belgique, Shields, cellist Nancy Ives, and subtle shading by timpanist Sergio Carreno highlighted the performance.