Whether the piece was Classical, Romantic, modern, or a world premiere – guest conductor Jun Märkl and the Oregon Symphony handled it all with panache. Märkl, a frequent guest with the orchestra since 2013, used his balletic style and pinpoint, to express the music of Haydn, Brahms, Copland, and Katherine Balch. It was a captivating tour-de-force program at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Monday, October 1, and it made me think that Märkl is a front-runner when the audition process opens up to replace the orchestra’s musical director, who will retire after the 2020/2021 season.
Each piece on the program was fascinating, starting with the world premiere of Balch’s “Chamber Music,” which was performed by the full orchestra. As Märkl noted in his opening remarks, the piece was like a discussion among groups within the orchestra. Quiet sounds dawdled, sliced, and slipped by in a random-like way. Now and then, the bass violins rapidly patted the sides of their instruments. The percussion section created a tinkle-like sound. The trumpets blared briefly. The woodwinds sounded like a wheezing harmonica. The piece was all very ephemeral with no melody ever emerging. It really tested my ears, and I would like to hear it again someday.
Haydn’s Symphony No. 83 (“Hen”) shifted gears (and ears) in a completely different direction with elegant and delightful melodic lines. Märkl’s fluid yet very articulate conducting elicited spot-on dynamic contrasts from the orchestra that made each movement intriguing. Among the best moments were the clucking sounds in the first movement, the subtle humor in the second, the dancing third, and the surging, perky style of fourth. Haydn just doesn’t get much better.
Inon Barnatan joined the orchestra for a scintillating performance of Copland’s Piano Concerto. The piece has elements of jazz and ragtime that often got jagged and jangly. Barnaton showed remarkable precision and expressivity at the keyboard, interacting with the orchestra with verve. There were soft sections, of course, and the clarinets snuck into the piece once or twice so quietly, it was as if their sound was perched on pillows.
Thunderous applause brought Barnatan back to the stage several times, and he indulged the listeners cooking up a very complex, fast, yet loosey-goosey version of Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm,” which brought down the house once again
After intermission Märkl led a very the orchestra in a marvelous performance of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony. The dynamics and choice of tempi gave the piece a compelling direction that never lagged was overly sentimental. Although the French horns had a couple of minor blips, the orchestra played it all at an extremely high level, and the audience responded with cheers. Märk shook hands with many members of the orchestra and seemed to be enjoying it all immensely. The third time he appeared, the orchestra refused to stand, allowing him to soak up the acclaim. It was a genuine musical love-fest.
Before the concert began, the orchestra’s president and CEO, Scott Showalter announced that the orchestra’s latest CD, “Aspects of America,” has been released on the Pentatone label. The CD contains music by Sean Shepherd, Sebastian Currier, Christopher Rouse, Kenji Bunch, and Samuel Barber. It is only available through Pentatone (a Dutch company) at the moment, but should be in the U.S. soon.
Correction: "Aspects of America" is available through Amazon. (Thanks to Elaine Calder's comment.)