Sunday, May 15, 2011

Oregon at Carnegie Hall

Carnegie Hall inaugurated what it calls its Spring for Music festival this year, a smartly conceived series that brings a few less-traveled orchestras into town with unusual, high-concept programs. Thursday's offering by the Oregon Symphony, directed by the perky Austro-Uruguayan Carlos Kalmar, showed what a win-win formula it is. Playing Carnegie Hall is a big deal for the orchestra, which has existed for 115 years without performing east of the Mississippi. Kalmar described a countdown clock that's been ticking down the days all season long. Much of the audience had actually flown in from Portland for the occasion, frequently lending the scene a cheerful, booster-ish feeling, most of all in the six ovations at the end.

And the program they sharply performed was significantly more daring than what you can usually hear, a somber ticket of four twentieth-century works united under the theme "Music in a Time of War." Ralph Vaughan Williams's 1930s-vintage Fourth Symphony had pride of place after intermission, angrily resonating with the decade's rise of violence and fascism. Before that, Kalmar constructed a kind of meta-symphony, played without pause, of Charles Ives's The Unanswered Question, John Adams's late-1980s setting for baritone of Walt Whitman's The Wound-Dresser, and Benjamin Britten's 1940 Sinfonia da Requiem, the one piece actually composed during wartime. The Oregonians brought it off as a big success, sounding like an overachieving B-plus orchestra in the first half and then really nailing the Vaughan Williams.

So it was a challenging, fearless program. For any twentieth-century music junkie, this is a rare treat: big, modern works throw sparks off of each other when you hear them together, but they're generally paired with something older and safer. Britten and Vaughan Williams were particularly resonant on Thursday night: two countryman composers without much style in common, writing music a few years apart in a similar mood. Some tense, climbing melodies in the first movement of the Vaughan Williams were immediately reminiscent of material in the Britten, in a way that you wouldn't realize from knowing the pieces separately.

The Unanswered Question was distinguished by a remarkable opening pianissimo in the strings, a barely-there dynamic taking full advantage of the Carnegie acoustic that Kalmar had raved about in his opening remarks. (Allan Kozinn, in the Times, takes time to note the worse-than usual coughing in the hall, which I think began before the first chord change. It was indeed a damn shame.) It's an appropriately atmospheric lead-in to The Wound-Dresser, itself slow, quiet, and ruminative. Adams is generally a flashy composer, but he's much deferential to the Whitman text, which plainly honors its Civil War wounded without flinching from the bodily tragedies they've suffered. The result is a serious, through-composed treatment that seems to step back and let the words create their own emotional profile. Sanford Sylvan, who premiered the work two decades ago, voiced its searching, arching melodies with somber grace and humanity. (Props to him, too, for gamely sitting self-effacingly onstage during the Ives and Britten works.) The Oregonians' concertmaster, Jun Iwasaki, performed a secondary but more rhapsodic violin part richly and with visible commitment. (He's an unusually animated violinist: even in the big symphonic works, it was fun to watch him bobbing and swaying around with the unconventional rhythms.)

As scathing as the Sinfonia da Reqiuem may be, it was welcome by this point to hear some loud and fast music. It's an emotionally raw work, opening with a pounding bass drum, built on a mass of bold, inchoate musical gestures that only win a melodic security in the tender third movement. The middle movement, taken at a ferocious clip by Kalmar, is a whirl of galloping string rhythms, snare drums, bugle calls, and grating orchestral outbursts: machine warfare evoked in a nightmare impression of a cavalry charge. The concluding lullaby, sung at first by three tenuously harmonized flutes above a gently consoling orchestra, suggests relief, scarring, and moral exhaustion all at the same time. Britten builds to a more affirmative climax, then lets that melt away too.

Ralph Vaughan Williams is much better known in his pastoralist mode, the romantic composer of The Lark Ascending and the Fantasy on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. But in a darker mood he's punchy and unpredictable, no more so than in the Fourth Symphony. The recurring theme is a jagged, four-note chromatic piece of scrap metal, memorably blasted out by the trombones and trumpets in seriously dissonant counterpoint to start the final movement's fugal epilogue. There's a softer, brooding slow movement and some similar episodes throughout, but the dominant feeling is bitter and unshrinking. In the final movement the orchestra builds up a galumphing head of steam replete with brass oompahs and cymbal crashes. The Oregonians charged through it impressively, all focused energy and precisely snapped full-orchestra syncopations.

By all appearances the Oregonians really outdid themselves, and I'd hear them again without hesitation. The series has gotten good local press; Carnegie's got it scheduled through 2013 so far, and I hope they decide to stick with it. It goes to show how good the apparently "regional" American orchestras can be, and in the service of an unusual concert presentation that's not about wondering how their Tchaikovsky or whatever stands up to the Big Five orchestras. So, like I said already, win-win.


Blogger Pete said...

Tho I never went to see the Oregon Symphony while I lived in Portland (I was too busy checking out the city's other cultural offerings), I remember hearing rumors that they had been putting together a really solid band.

Glad to read about this initiative from Carnegie Hall too; about time something like this happened. You gotta figure, as the talent pool only gets bigger and more talented, every orchestra in the country, whether or not they're fiscally solvent, will wind up getting better and better.

And add in thoughtful program, and baby, you've got a stew going!

Knocked it out of the park on the writing, Jack, as usual.

5/15/2011 1:48 PM  

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