Saturday, January 20, 2018

Fantastic images, personal interpretations mark Oregon Symphony's 'Rite of Spring'

Elina Vähälä
The Oregon Symphony set out to give the audience what it wanted (quite literally) on its Rite of Spring weekend, and appeared to succeed admirably. After engaging with the OSO listening public and various community partners, the result was the 'Sounds of Home' series, that "pairs exhiliarating repertoire with stunning visual displays to explore timely issues in the Portland community and beyond," according to OSO.  The series opening on January 13 was bold and challenging, both in terms of repertoire and visual elements.

One of the hallmarks of the evening seemed to be personal interpretations; Maestro Kalmar, whose natural charisma and vast knowledge alway make for engaging and edifying remarks, seemed even more intimate in his speaking and conducting.  The incredible personal touches from violinist Elina Vähälä and the visuals by multimedia experience designer Matthew Haber added to this in that all the images he used were from Oregon, and so personal to our state.  In keeping with that spirit I shall be incorporating a few personal touches in the form of memories and observations to this review.

The opening piece was Haydn's Symphony No. 70 in D Major, one reason for its choosing being that it is not one of the better-known chestnuts from this voluminous oeuvre.  Its opening was spritely and almost terpsichorean; clean, bright and balanced. A surprisingly bold attack on the menuet in the third movement was refreshing, and the Allegro con brio finale contained a crisply executed contrapuntal section. This fugue served as a reminder of the incredible transitional period that was the span of Haydn's life (1732-1809)--as a young man, his early compositions were written when old Master Bach and other great maestros of the high baroque were still composing, and he lived through the gallant and Viennese classical on through to the first whisperings of the Romantic, some of which can be heard in his last works.

The second work of the first half was a titanic violin concerto, Bartók's Violin Concerto No. 2. Vähälä opened with a full frontal assault--almost transgressive in her chordal attack. Kalmar expertly brought the orchestal dynamic down when they began to overshadow Vähälä's pianissimo trills. There followed a loud, almost vulgar tremolo from winds and strings and a saucy glissando from the soloist. Vähälä leaned heavily on a melodic minor motif which produced an incredible effect of maximum dissonance.  The soloist opened the theme and variations of the second movement began with a very sere exposition, a sort of poco mezzo saltando that was affecting and delicious. The strings had some great slapping, snapping pizzicato fun, and Vähälä delivered a haunting siren song seemingly out of nowhere with sorcerous ability, and closed the work with bacchanalian fervor.

The usual backdrop behind the stage at the Schnitz  was a stylized, mountainous series of screens covering the dingy old choir loft, the self-same loft where I have spent many an hour over the years as a bass waiting for the fourth movement of the Beethoven 9 to begin. 'The long sit,' I've always called it. Leading to the bad old joke about how the choir occupies its time while waiting--'it's the bottom of the 9th and the basses are loaded.'  But tonight the space was being used for something much different. 

As Stravinsky's seminal Rite of Spring began, scenes of flowers budding and seedlings sprouting accompanied the delightful woodwind cacophony.  Haber's images were kaleidoscopic--distracting from the music at first it seemed but maybe only to a reviewer trying to take notes? At any rate it soon seemed to mesh more smoothly. The images changed to cityscapes as the music grew bolder.  Ephemeral wisps of smoke devolved into human, plant and animal shapes before quickly dissolving.  The OSO played this difficult piece high and tight as one would expect from this group, displaying incredible subtlety and cocksure boldness in equal measures. Infectious, beautiful and arrestingly violent, the music then began accompanying disturbing images of fungal spores waving and bobbing like heads in a crowd. With weeping slime molds and spores blossoming in an uncomfortable reminiscence of mushroom clouds, the work finished showing the magic of decay.


bob priest said...

Rite of Spring don't need no stinking projected imagery.

Nate said...

Amen. Ugh.