I just ended my first of two weeks with the Oregon Bach Festival Orchestra last night. Saturday evening’s concert was in Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall (ASCH), Friday’s was in the Silva Concert Hall at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts in Eugene, Ore. There couldn’t be two more different places to play, each venue having its own set of corresponding positives and negatives.
The problems with the ASCH are well-known if you’ve read my blog before or ever talked to one of the musicians of the Oregon Symphony. The bass response is terrible, there is little sense of detail to be gotten out in the hall itself, the backstage amenities are virtually nonexistent, and where they do actually exist, they are dated and unpleasant. There is also the problem onstage of really hearing from one side of the orchestra to the other, but we’ll get back to that in a moment. On the plus side, it’s a beautiful, old movie house, and has plenty of charm from the audience’s perspective (unless you are a woman and need to use the restroom facilities at intermission, then it’s like a medieval torture chamber).
Silva Hall is a much newer venue. It has wonderful backstage spaces and the front of house is a welcoming, light-filled, and modern space for audiences to mingle in before the concert and during intermission. From what I hear from audience members, the electronically-enhanced acoustics are quite clear and attractive. But onstage, it’s a different matter. Sitting in the back of the section as I do at OBF, I can never hear what the rest of the section is doing, and must keep my eyes glued to principal violist Tom Turner and concertmaster Elizabeth Baker lest I end up in some rhythmical hinterland. It’s very uncomfortable. In addition, no sound whatsoever comes back from the bone dry hall – very different from the ASCH – which last night seemed as far removed from Silva Hall as Carnegie Hall is from the ASCH. So, as mediocre as the ASCH is from both an onstage and audience point of view, it is quite the superior venue to Silva Hall in many respects.
It was a pleasure to listen to Josh Bell play the Mendelssohn concerto with us the past two nights. His playing really is stunning. Such a silvery, gossamer tone he conjures up, which still manages to reach the furthest recesses of the hall, thanks in part to his $4 million ‘Gibson’ Stradivarius. As for the rest of the program, well, I’ve never quite played as slow a Mendelssohn ‘Italian’ Symphony as I did Friday night in Eugene. One cellist remarked that if that were the standard tempo, he’d have won an audition many times over by now. Last night’s tempi were a bit more sprightly, and the music seemed to flow much better. Still, an audience member from German approached my wife and I at the Heathman restaurant’s bar after the concert and asked us if we’d ever heard the piece done so slowly before. I believe I used the word ‘stately’ in my reply. The Mendelssohn “Die Erste Walpurgisnacht” was a work that I’d never even known to exist before last week, but it’s a nice little work for chorus, orchestra, and vocal soloists that brings the best of Mendelssohn to the fore, and provides much for all involved to chew on during the performance.
What’s up this week? British composer Michael Tippett’s oratorio A Child of Our Time, led by OBF music director designate Matthew Halls.