Ear-piercing whistles and piccolos, deafening drums and timpani, wailing brass and horns, sustained angry tones from the strings – they were all memorable parts of John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1, “Of Rage and Remembrance,” which the Oregon Symphony performed on Saturday, April 6, at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. The decibel level was very high during the loudest moments, and I did notice orchestra members protecting their ears, but the shock waves of sound effectively expressed the frustration of the composer at the loss of friends during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 90s when there was no effective treatment.
The bleating cries from the orchestra landed like visceral punches, but they were tempered now and then by solemn, dark, sonic clouds that chugged to a stifling sense of sadness – at one point plaintively announced by a solitary trombone. From the din of melancholy, emerged the muffled sound of salon music (from the first movement of Albéniz-Godowsky Tango) from an offstage piano – suggesting memories of better times and painful losses. Rumblings in the basement of the contrabassoon, contrabass clarinet, bass trombone, and tuba created a sense of dread and mourning. And just when everything was about to hit the bottom, the pounding of drums would begin to pick up the pace and the sense of anger, exploding in frustration.
In the second movement (“Tarantella”) slow melodies sped up into a cheerful dance that became faster and wilder and wilder – conveying the idea of dancing so fast that you can become cured. The fourth movement (“Chaconne” Guilio’s Song”) was highlighted by a cello duet (played by Nancy Ives and Marilyn de Oliveira) that was hauntingly beautiful. Another mesmerizing effect of the piece were the passages in which the sound from the brass section faded in and out.
The stunning emotional range of Corigliano’s First Symphony reminded me of Gustav Mahler’s symphonic works. Sometimes the music was gorgeous, sometimes flat out alarming. The orchestra, led by Music Director Carlos Kalmar, successful touched every nerve of the piece with its virtuosic playing. The blunt finale didn’t wrap up the anger and frustration with a neat bow, but left a lingering sense of unfinished business that must be resolved some day in the future.
Earlier in the concert, Emanuel Ax, a frequent guest with the orchestra, performed Haydn’s Piano Concerto in D Major and Stravinsky’s Capriccio. It was interesting to read in the program notes that this was the first time that the orchestra had performed the beloved Haydn piece, yet it had played the Stravinsky with Rudolf Firkusny at the keyboard in 1968.
Ax was completely at home with both works. He conveyed the liveliness of the Haydn flawlessly, delivering fleet arpeggios and dangling immaculate trills that were never overstated or understated. The second movement was unrushed and wonderfully serene, followed by a playfully energetic third movement. The orchestra aligned itself to Ax’s playing with great sensitivity and together they made an elegant and refreshing statement.
The Stravinsky piece exhibited mercurial flavor that caused the piece to change restlessly. After a splashy opening, the music veered into a brief tango-inflected section and then bounced into a series of spikey phrases that stimulated responses from various members of the orchestra. A collage of sorts is revealed as the Ax’s playing darted in and out and sometimes slowed down into a brief melodic phrase.
But the final movement had a tongue-in-cheek style in which the pianist teased the orchestra and vice versa.
The audience rewarded the performance with sustained applause that brought Ax back to center stage several times. He responded with a Chopin Nocturne, which was absolutely exquisite.
In sharp contrast to the Corgliano symphony, the concert opened with the lightweight, yet utterly delightful Overture to “Fra Diavolo,” an opera written French composer Daniel Auber in 1830. The orchestra sparkled in its performance highlighted by a snappy snare drum, perky melodic lines that had a Rossini-like flair, and a trumpet call that erupted into a festive and stirring finale.