Monday, April 30, 2018

Organ Symphony needs to pipe up - Kwak splendid in ethereal violin concerto

One of the biggest deficiencies of the Arlene Schnizter Concert Hall becomes fully evident whenever the Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3 (the “Organ Symphony”) is on the program. The piece is famous for the organ’s entry in the second movement, when it should have a rich, full ring that just thunders, and makes you realize that it is the king of instruments. But the organ that Schnitz uses just can’t make such a statement no matter what the organist tries to do, and the Oregon Symphony had Douglas Schneider, one of the very finest organists in the Pacific Northwest at the keyboard for its concert on Saturday, April 21st for the Saint-Saëns spectacular. The organ’s sound was good enough for the gentle and hymn-like passages in the first movement, but it just couldn’t deliver the goods and make the bombastic announcement in the second. That was a shame. Still, Schneider powered up the volume for the triumphant finale, and that roused the audience to close out the evening.

Speaking of the finale, guest conductor Sascha Goetzel executed a crazy gesture to get that forte at the end of the piece by extending arm upward, leaning as far back as possible, then closing it like the jaws of some huge monster. The gesture worked, but it was also very surprising because for most of the concert Goetzel seemed to have his head buried in the score and didn’t communicate much of anything to the musicians. His performance on the podium was a mystery to me throughout the evening.

The other big piece on the program featured concertmaster Sarah Kwak in Karol Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No. 1. Kwak played the piece brilliantly, fashioning rich melodic lines that created a sense of the ethereal and ephemeral. Although most of the tones were in the upper register of her instrument, including a lovely high-wire passage, she also excelled in the lower register. The orchestra played with terrific articulation to match Kwak’s, but it could have held back its volume a tad more in order to let her sound come out more strongly.

The concert kicked off with Krenek’s “Potpourri,” a pieced that lived up to its name in every which way. It was a 17-minute sonic variety show that traveled through a number of different styles from unabashed orchestration that could have adorned a musical to a jaunty, Charleston-esque dance session, to a piano-infused church-like hymn, to a big Wagner-like passage, and a couple of Romantic bits thrown in. I missed a half a dozen more because they were so delightfully enticing and fleeting. The piece had one of the softest percussion sections that I have ever heard and a sparkly ending that featured principal trumpet Jeffrey Work and the trombones.

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