Saturday, November 3, 2018

Oregon Symphony and Kahane ricochet through Norman's "Split"

Although pianist Jeffrey Kahane has been a regular guest artist with the Oregon Symphony, his appearance with the orchestra on Saturday (October 27th) at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall was a special occasion because of “Split,” a piano concerto that was written for him by the LA-based composer Andrew Norman. Kahane premiered the piece with the New York Philharmonic in 2015. This time around with the Oregon Symphony under the baton of Carlos Kalmar, Kahane played the revised version.

Yet, since there is no recording of the piece available commercially, it was difficult to know how much of the piece was revised. I checked out the interview that was posted online, and Norman mentioned that he added an additional piano part that was perhaps meant as an alter ego to the music that Kahane played. Norman also said that he did extensive revisions to the piece but they were not elaborated.

In any case, “Split” had a lot of snap, crackle, and pop with fragmentary passages for the soloist and the orchestra moving in various directions – sometimes like a ricocheting pinball. Crouched over the keyboard, Kahane would pounce on some notes, accenting the percussive sound of the piano. At other times, he played rhapsodic lines that reminded me of Liszt. But as soon as I thought the piece would settle in one direction, a sharp snap from the percussion battery would signal a change, causing Kahane and the orchestra to scramble in a new direction. Sometimes Kahane responded with a nervous jangle of sounds and then seem to lose track (intentionally) until only a few solitary notes dwindled away. Blatts and splats from the brass augmented choppy passages. Some segments had whispery high, ethereal tones that evaporated. Kahane and the woodwinds would bubble things up with a random quality. Lyrical snatches came and went from all corners.

Because of its scattershot style, “Split” might be Norman’s take on the multitasking we live in. Whatever the case, he was on hand to take a bow from an audience that was genuinely appreciative.

The big and familiar piece on the program was Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, which received a superb performance from the opening blast of the Fate motif to the furiously triumphant finale,. The ensemble cooked up a full-bodied Russian stew with a terrific dark, soulful sound. Some phrases in the pizzicato-ing second movement needed to diminuendo more, but the all-in-all the playing expressed an outstanding combination of precision and emotion, resulting in a standing-ovation from the audience. Kudos all around… especially to the woodwinds and timpanist Jonathan Greeney.

The concert opened with “Three Dance Episodes” from Bernstein’s “On the Town,” a musical that depicts three sailors on 24-leave in New York City during WWII. The terrific orchestration of the concert suite captures the adventurous spirit of the trio and their encounters.

The first interlude (“The Great Lover”) featured a loose-limbed and jaunty theme that was augmented by interruptions from jokey woodwinds and flashes of brass. The second (“Lonely Town”) was imbued with, subdued clarinets, a smoky trumpet sound from Jeffrey Work, moody strings, and swaggering brass. The third (“Times Square”) alternated between blustery clarinet riffs by Mark Dubac, a saunter into a saucy night club, and the hectic pulse of people, vehicles, lights, tall buildings, and all.

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