Tag Archives: alban gerhardt

an island of calm

Alban Gerhardt performs Bach at Portland's Pioneer Place mall on Friday. Photo: Charles Noble.

Pioneer Place in downtown Portland. A place abuzz with all manner of people doing all manner of things. People hurrying to catch a movie, a bus, the last hours of a sale at a favorite store. Soccer moms talking on cell phones, businessmen tapping out emails on their Blackberries, a clutch of school girls cruising the mall after school, chattering raucously…

A man playing the cello with the grace and simplicity borne of utter mastery.

Small children on their parent’s lap, in wonder at the sounds and the vision of seeing this mysterious and beautiful instrument only a few feet away. A high school violist, sitting with her case, utterly absorbed by the great Bach suites for solo cello. Oregon Symphony members, relaxing and enjoying the music. Music lovers of all kinds, sitting closely together, huddled against the gale of noise that swirls about the atrium, seeking shelter in the music of JS Bach – speaking anew after over 300 years.

This was the magical atmosphere of Alban Gerhardt’s one-hour performance in a unique public venue – a busy mall in downtown Portland. It was part of his six day residency with the Oregon Symphony. As my wife (a cellist) and I watched from the level above, she turned to me and whispered “when I see the faces of the people listening, it makes me feel good about what we do”.

After this observation, I spent as much time looking at people as they entered the space as I did Alban when he played. Some people were drawn as though by a gravitational field – the power of the music was like a giant celestial body that they were powerless to ignore. Others looked on briefly, but┬átheir other concerns were greater than their curiosity, and so they passed on to wherever and whatever they were going to do next. Still others seemed to consciously look away in a gesture that seemed to say that they were almost overpowered by what was going on, and they couldn’t invest the emotional capital to get involved. But most often – I saw this especially among the teens that were going by – they were immediately intrigued by what they were seeing and hearing. They would text their friends, take a photo on their phone, or a short video, and take a minute or two just to absorb what was happening.

This reminded me of the basic truth about our young people that is often trivialized or ignored: they are voracious in their appetites for everything musical or novel (or most of all, both). They are also drawn in by quality, passion, and commitment. These things Alban Gerhardt has in spades, and so does the Oregon Symphony. I can’t help but think that we can pull these succeeding generations into a lifelong love of classical music if we aren’t afraid to talk to their level, or even challenge it a bit. We need to stop dumbing down and worry if they’ll ‘get it’. They will if what I’ve seen today is any indication.

the alban has landed

The Oregon Symphony’s first artist-in-residence, cellist Alban Gerhardt, arrived in Portland this week and is already making himself visible around the city. Yesterday afternoon, he worked with members of the Portland Youth Philharmonic in a three-hour masterclass. Today (Oct. 26 – 4:00-5:00 pm) he’ll take the Bach cello suites to Pioneer Place Mall for a one-man flash mob (he’ll be in the area by the escalators in the atrium). There are more visits and performances planned through the weekend – visit the special OSO site here.

myths, monsters, and the new world

Last night the Oregon Symphony played a concert that is, in many ways, emblematic of the tenure of our current music director Carlos Kalmar. On display were canny programming, a stellar soloist, and a well-known chestnut with an interpretive twist.

The work that has most occupied the members of the orchestra in the weeks preceding the rehearsals for these concerts was the American composer Christopher Rouse’s Phaeton, a hell-bent-for-leather tone poem that concerns a son’s joyride in his father’s chariot that ends badly. It is a virtuoso showpiece for the orchestra that is (most likely more) enjoyable for the audience. There are so many interesting combinations of instruments that keep changing through the course of the 8 minute piece. My favorite of these is a brief section that has eerie muted trumpets that sounds, to my ear, like seething resentment incarnate. Add to that a screaming, bell-up English horn cry, and snarling brass and scurrying strings and woodwinds – it’s quite a ride. I said to a colleague after the concert that the orchestra personifies the young man who takes the chariot ride – it’s all you can do just to hang on!

Alban Gerhardt

Following the Rouse was an unjustly-neglected work for cello and orchestra – Prokofiev’s Symphony-Concerto. German cellist Alban Gerhardt was the soloist. Alban has become a favorite guest of the Oregon Symphony – he was appearing last night for the fourth time – and there is no question that he deserves that status. He’s a consummate performer of the highest order. There is no showiness to him. He just serves the music, and boy does he ever serve it! Having Alban come back again and again over the past eight seasons has been revelatory, as it has enable us to see his growth as an artist and performer. This year he returned as a fully mature artist, it seems. He has aged (more like a fine wine) since we last saw him, and his emotional commitment has further deepened and strengthened as well. The Prokofiev is such a test for the soloist – it is long and very physically taxing, and I would suspect emotionally taxing as well. Alban handled all of that with such a powerful inward focus and technical security – it was a masterclass in how to play the cello. Truly, he’s a monster performer.

Dvorak’s New World symphony is so well-known that, as a friend remarked to me recently, it enables you to enjoy the artistry of the performers rather than thinking about something that’s unfamiliar. I haven’t thought of it that way before, and it makes a lot of sense to me. In a way, it’s become part of Carlos’ signature – take a well-known piece and reveal aspects of it that audiences normally don’t get to hear. That takes work – many conductors would just say to the orchestra “yes, you know this piece very well, so let’s just run it and not spend too much time working”. Not so Carlos. It’s that kind of care that led to his breakout performance of Beethoven’s Fifth years back, and that continues to make working under him rewarding. It’s never business as usual. Some standouts for me from last night: Kyle Mustain’s sensitive and gorgeous English horn solos in the second movement; guest principal flutist Ryan Rice’s many beautiful solos; the entire brass section for their incredible soft playing at the opening of the slow movement, and their blazing sunrise chord that took everyone’s breath away; and timpanist Jonathan Greeney’s impeccable playing throughout.

If you haven’t bought your tickets for Sunday or Monday night – you owe it to yourself to get them now.

Tickets at Oregon Symphony website.
My program notes for this concert.

rodent of unusual size

Remember the classic movie The Princess Bride? There was a much-feared creature that lived in the Fire Swamp – the R.O.U.S (Rodent Of Unusual Size). This week, the Oregon Symphony tackles a composition by another much-feared creature – the R.O.U.S.E (Christopher Rouse) called Phaeton. His music is renowned for its difficulty, and he does, in fact, seem to take delight in seeing just how miserable he makes life for the musicians who take on his music. The other aspect of his music, other than its speed, which makes life hard for us is its sheer volume level. This piece is loud. I described the percussion section as sounding like a tornado demolishing a Bed, Bath and Beyond. Principal percussionist Niel DePonte said it was like a typhoon in a car repair shop. Cellist Tim Scott noted that the horns sounded like trumpeting, rampaging escaped elephants from the zoo. Get the picture? After all, the piece is a representation of Phaeton, son of the sun good Helios, and his ill-fated attempt to pilot the sun’s chariot. It’s the oldest story in the parent playbook: child goes on joyride, wrecks family car.

This weekend’s concerts will be quite the spectacle, between the Rouse, which opens the program, and the incredibly difficult Symphony-Concerto for cello and orchestra by Prokofiev, featuring returning cello fave Alban Gerhardt; and the audience favorite Symphony No. 9 “From the New World” by Antonin Dvorak. Get your tix here.