Sunday, March 3, 2019

Dr. Atomic and the Rach 2 form an impressive outing by the Oregon Symphony

Marc-Andre Hamelin
Saturday February 23 saw the OSO present an intense and weighty concert featuring the Dr. Atomic Symphony, distilled from the opera of the same name by composer John Adams, the Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor by Rachmaninoff, and Richard Strauss's Death and Transfiguration.*

The evening opened with symphony based on Adams's opera, which deals with the emotions of Robert J. Oppenheimer in the days preceding the first test of an atomic weapon on human history, deep in the New Mexico desert. In Adams's own words the work "is kind of explosive, as if it were Oppenheimer's plutonium sphere just about to go supercritical." The disturbing cacophony from the first notes onward set the tone for this deeply serious work.  The tremendous percussion section of the OSO had their work cut out for them in this piece, with tuned gongs, thunder sheet, tam tams and crotales among the instruments featured prominently, not to mention the incredibly demanding part written for the timpani, and the section executed everything masterfully. The double basses grumbled like a disgruntled animal, and contributed to an unsettling feeling of being on the ragged edge of something terrifying, unavoidable and yet somehow profoundly alluring.  The OSO explored the fascinating, syncopated sound world fearlessly, and the haunting trumpet in the final act gave voice to the tortured mind of Oppenheimer contemplating the awesome power of the destructive device he has wrought.

Marc-Andre Hamelin was the soloist for the Rachmaninoff piano concerto. The chordal passages at the opening were bold and beautiful, but his arpeggios, while precise, felt a bit understated. Dream-like scalar passages were unfortunately marred by the orchestra being slightly out of sync with the soloist, by a narrow but consistently noticeable margin, especially in the cadences. At other times the voice of the piano was simply subsumed by the orchestra.

In the Adagio, the duets between piano and various woodwinds were delightful, like a breathless lullaby. The long, slow solo part was followed by strings playing molto cantabile for all they were worth, swooning and soaring.  Hamelin was brilliant, hanging on every isolated note and phrase, infusing them with deep meaning.  He attacked the final movement with a jocular staccatissimo, playing with a tinkling, vibraphone-like quality. For all his deft and delicate touch he still brought the thunder for the showy Rach fireworks display, and the orchestra did a much better job of getting out of the soloists way in the finale.

*Due to illness I was unable to stay and review the Strauss, which comprised the second half of the evening.

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