This week’s issue of the New Yorker has music critic and arts writer Alex Ross’ thoughts on the Spring for Music Festival and the Oregon Symphony’s program and performance at Carnegie Hall earlier this month. The verdict? He liked it. A lot. Here’s an excerpt from the article:
….”Great programs create a kind of invisible drama, establishing narrative connections between pieces that may or may not be directly related. They bring forth what E.T.A. Hoffmann, in his 1813 essay “Beethoven’s Instrumental Music”, calls “an unknown realm, a world quite separate from the outer sensual world”.
Such a realm seemed to materialize during a Spring for Music concert by the Oregon Symphony – the highlight of the festival and one of the most gripping events of the current season. Carlos Kalmar, a Uruguayan conductor of Austrian descent, who has been leading the Oregon since 2003, devised a program titled “Music for a Time of War.” He opened with Ives’ mystical miniature “The Unanswered Question”, whose unspecified query to the universe was here interpreted as “Why do people fight?” Then the ever-noble baritone Sanford Sylvan joined the orchestra to sing John Adams’s 1988 piece “The Wound-Dresser”, a setting of one of Walt Whitman’s odes to injured Civil War soldiers. (The work, which includes Whitman’s famous line “Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips,” was intended partly as an AIDS memorial.) The final piece before intermission was Britten’s “Sinfonia da Requiem”, a pacifist lament written in the early years of the Second World War. The second half of the concert was devoted to Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony, a peculiarly violent statement by a composer popularly associated with pastoral moods.
Kalmar heightened his scenario by presenting the first three pieces attacca – that is, without pause. The Whitman of “The Wound-Dresser” walked in from the Ivesian mist; the brutal timpani strokes that open Britten’s symphony fell like cannon-balls on the hospital ward. The orchestra fleshed out the concept with playing of controlled intensity, from the first hushed string chord of the Ives onward. A sense of fragile resolution at the end of the Britten was torn asunder by the scouring dissonances of the Vaughan Williams, which is from the early nineteen-thirties and anticipates horrors to come. The Oregonians’ furious rendition of that symphony would have been impressive in any context, but as the capstone to a brilliantly worked-out program it had shattering force. The Oregon violist Charles Noble did not exaggerate when he wrote on his blog, “We quite frankly nearly blew the roof off the place.”
……Let’s hope that future editions of Spring for Music – the festival will run at least through 2013 – spread the news that North America possesses dozens of excellent orchestras, and that on a good night any of them can outclass the so-called Big Five. The Oregonians proved the point by thoroughly upstaging the New York Philharmonic, which had played an unremarkable gala program at Carnegie a few nights earlier.”