André Watts has been one of the most popular artists over many, many years with the Oregon Symphony. I can still recall him riveting the audience with an electrifying performance of one of Beethoven’s piano concertos with the orchestra when they still played in Keller Auditorium (then called Civic Auditorium). Watts has consistently been one of the very best soloists to play with the orchestra. That’s why it was sad to see him experience problems in playing Grieg’s piano concerto with the orchestra at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Saturday (December 2), due to apparent memory slips.
According to Wikipedia, Watts suffered from a subdural hematoma in 2004 and has more recently recovered from prostate cancer, but whatever the reason, the famous piano encountered noticeable problems when he got lost in the cadenza in the first movement. He recovered and found his way out of it, receiving encouraging applause after finishing it. But his playing in the slow second movement had some missed notes and he was not to be able to get into the flow of the lyrical music. In the third movement he continued to struggle with passages, and seemed to get angry with himself, making some of the quieter phrases too loud. Conductor Carlos Kalmar took care of the situation by giving Watts a few helpful cues just in case. After the piece concluded someone from the audience brought a bouquet of flowers to the stage, and there was plenty of applause, but there was a lot of talk during the intermission as to what had happened. Being one of America’s favorite pianists, one can only how that the performance was just a brief aberration to an otherwise brilliant career.
The Grieg was to centerpiece of an all-Nordic program with works by Jean Sibelius, Carl Nielsen, and Joonas Kikkonen. British conductor Leo Hussain was scheduled to lead the program, but a family emergency interrupted. So Kalmar, the Oregon Symphony’s music director, stepped in to save the day.
The surprisingly delightful piece on the program was Kokkonen’s “Symphonic Sketches,” a short work in three movements that began with a slow, unrelenting heartbeat from the percussion section, which stayed in the background as the strings painted a lush landscape that became slightly exotic – accented by the bassoon (Evan Kuhlmann) in an oddly high register. The second movement was brief and agitated with lively rhythms that bounced along. The third created a ponderous atmosphere with a high, spun sound from the strings, a stately brass choir, followed by long lines from the strings and the return of the quiet heartbeat in the percussion.
The orchestra superbly performed Sibelius’s “Valse triste” with the softest, most exquisite tone – as if playing in a faded, grand ballroom from a bygone era. They followed it with an incisive performance of Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony. A relentless, bristling march impelled by the snare drum (Niel DePonte), signaled the ominous threat of war in spite of the calmer and more harmonious sounds from the orchestra, such as the woodwinds evoking the sound of fluttering birds. That exchange of peaceful and warlike sounds continued throughout the first movement, ending with a plaintive glimmer from the clarinet (James Shields) against the warning of an offstage snare drum. The second movement escalated into a near cacophony of sound with trumpets rising above it all. The strings were scintillating as they flew through lightning-fast passages. A wild ride by the clarinet (Shields) cried out in jubilation followed by alovely, lyrical melody for the strings, indicating a triumph of the good and positive.