Sunday, May 26, 2019

Oregon Symphony closes the season with a Titanic Mahler and Weill

Storm Large
The Oregon Symphony closed the 2018-19 season with a Mahler Symphony, as has been the tradition for some years. In addition there was a special presentation of Kurt Weill's ballet chanté (sung ballet) The Seven Deadly Sins, his final collaboration with lyricist Bertolt Brecht, which tells the story of Anna 1 and Anna 2,  two sisters (or are there really two of them?) on a journey (in this English translation) across the U.S., with seven cities each representing one of the sins.

Portland-based chanteuse Storm Large took center stage for the Weill. A stool and a small table with a wine bottle and glass formed the set, and in the prologue Storm's easy, confident performance found good footing with the slow, steady pulse of the orchestra. Hudson Shad, a male vocal ensemble, sang the part of The Family, which played the role of a Greek Chorus commenting on the action.

During Sloth, Hudson Shad sang the menacing call and response, and the vocalists were tremendous. Storm sang with immaculate diction, and during Pride she showed an unabashed, frowzy sensuality as she stripped off her greatcoat and danced in a slinky cocktail dress.  Her performance was dynamic and believable--one couldn't help but root for her all the way. During Anger Storm sang a lengthy, repetitive pedal point that was absolutely concise, clear and bell-like. Gluttony featured a delicious a cappella chorus from Hudson Shad, who with their oh-so-serious moralizing reinforced the satirical nature of the work. The vocalizing from the entire group, but especially from Storm Large, was extremely powerful while never sacrificing exacting clarity.  This performance was a treat, and the wealth of experience the vocalists have performing this specific work shone brightly.

Mahler's Symphony No. 1 in D Major, "Titan" opened with the orchestra taking a mythic tone indeed, cyclopean and trembling strings leading into the ghostly off-stage fanfare. Maestro Kalmar is wonderful at immense, broad soundscapes, and he led the orchestra effectively from the opening threnody to the dizzying pastorale.  The zesty, rumbling rum-pum-pum from the strings in the second movement was fantastic, betraying the somnolent, stygian  Frère Jacques that opens the third. The orchestra found its way into the jarringly joyous dance tune, and as the two themes went back and forth they were never allowed to grow stale: always morphing dynamically or texturally, growing now more sparing, now more longing.  The startling, horrifying triple forte in the fourth movement was a shock even though most people (probably) knew it was coming. Was Mahler intentionally channeling Haydn's great moment from the 'Surprise Symphony here? Maybe. It certainly had a similar effect on the audience.

A piece like this, made for a large, lush, modern orchestra, should be played deftly, subtlely, and yet with appropriate emotionality and bombast when required. It's very immensity requires that each small part do its job; there is little margin for error here precisely because of its grandeur. Having been on the other side of Maestro Kalmar's baton numerous times, I can attest that his bold, often frenetic gesturing belies a meticulous rigidity that holds together the tremendous musical forces that can so easily go astray. As usual it was a pleasure to watch the maestro lead such a tremendous group of performers, and it was a fittingly stupendous finale.

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