If you’re frequent symphony patrons, you’ll have noticed that I have been absent from the last two Classical series shows. That was due to the death of my father on October 21st after a short illness. I was fortunate to be able to get the time away from my job to be with him and my family in his final days. The support from my friends and colleagues in the orchestra and staff has been truly extraordinary, and I have once again reminded to the truly incredible orchestral family to which I proudly belong.
My absence from the orchestra, combined with frequent trips back and forth to Tacoma, did make it possible for me to attend these last two concerts. I don’t believe I’ve had the opportunity to hear a non-pops concert of my colleagues for at least 7-8 years. So it was long overdue. I don’t get rotated off of pieces like the non-titled members of the string sections do, nor (with rare repertoire exceptions) does my section find itself not playing a piece or pieces on a program. This makes it pretty difficult to get a chance to hear my orchestra play in its hall.
Last night’s program is obviously much nearer to hand, and so much clearer in my head, so I’ll give my impressions and you can see if they gibe with yours. I’m just one set of ears, sitting in a particular part of the hall, so your mileage may vary, and may be equally valid!
Oregon Symphony | Photo: © Charles Noble
First off, this was a spectacular program with which to show off the orchestra. It truly has become a virtuoso ensemble. This was evident right from the start with Paul Dukas’ brilliant tone poem The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. There were so many wonderful things to comment on – first off, the sheer pianissimo dynamic achieved at the start. My position on orchestra greatness is that it is defined dynamically by the ability to play extremely softly, yet with a living, present sound. My colleagues got this just right. Individual impressions: gorgeous piccolo playing by Zacharia Galatis; fleet and distinct passagework by the string section; sharp as a tack playing by the percussion section (including some virtuoso bell work by principal percussionist Niel DePonte); incredible contrabassoon playing by Evan Kuhlmann (he really is one of the best in the business); and beautiful solos by concertmaster Sarah Kwak and principal violist Joël Belgique. This piece if often trotted out on kids concerts or other specials, often with limited time to get the details right, and this was a nuanced, virtuoso performance that made the piece rise to the occasion.
Pianist Jeffrey Kahane, long a favorite of Portland audiences both from his appearances with both the Oregon Symphony and the Oregon Bach Festival, joined the orchestra for George Gershwin’s Concerto in F. I was impressed, once again, by the silken sound of the string section, so flexible in following Carlos Kalmar’s direction and Kahane’s phrasing. Again, the percussion section did great work – with Sergio Carreno doing some gorgeous pianissimo snare playing that really took my breath away. Principal trumpet Jeffrey Work was stellar in his extended and atmospheric solos in the slow movement. JáTtik Clark had some lovely tuba lines that showed off the delicacy of what is often a rather uncouth instrument in the hands of lesser players. Kahane’s playing was clear and expressive, never percussive, and his phrasing was individual without delving into the territory of being mannered.
The second half of the concert was taken up entirely by a suite (devised by Carlos Kalmar) from the ballet Cinderella by Sergei Prokofiev. Supertitles were projected over the orchestra to keep the audience in the action without the need for shuffling through their programs – this is a new tactic that I believe should be continued whenever possible. Very helpful. If any piece on the program demonstrated what a fine ensemble the Oregon Symphony has become in the 20 seasons I’ve been a member, it was this one. It is a gorgeous and demanding score, one which requires power, flexibility, precision, and beauty of tone – all in equal measure, and often all at the same time. Zach Galatis had yet more beautiful and delicate soft passages on several occasions, and proved himself to be master of an instrument that (it often seems) does not like to be tamed to the softer dynamics. The strings again held sway with a gorgeous, warm sound, scampering passage work, and beautiful ensemble playing. English Hornist Kyle Mustain had a beautiful and extended solo in the Oriental Dance (seemingly required in every ballet ever danced). The winds were their usual glistening and vibrant selves, while the brass section (featuring Assistant principal trombone Robert Taylor filling in on bass trombone) played with assurance no matter what dynamic was called for.
Those are some semi-detailed impressions. What about the larger issues? Well, the hall isn’t doing the orchestra any favors. I was sitting in the second row of the dress circle, about 14 seats (audience) left of center. The higher frequencies are most prominent – meaning the violins and percussion are almost always favored in the balance, as are the french horns, due to playing into the concrete back wall of the stage. The shell has insufficient mass to reflect any but the higher frequencies, which means that the lower strings, in particular, are at a particular disadvantage. Having played at Carnegie Hall and Seattle’s Benaroya Hall with this orchestra, I also know that it’s much more difficult than it needs to be to play softly (and beautifully) in the Schnitzer. Side to side ensemble is quite good, but front to back is less successful, particularly at the diagonal (percussion to low strings, or low brass to violins). And as much detail as I was able to discern last night, there was at least 50 percent more that was lost in the hall or through the gaps in the shell, etc. This orchestra is playing way above the level of the hall, and that is a crying shame.
Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall entrance lobby | Photo: © Charles Noble
But, we play where we play, and that is not likely to change any time soon. Even if someone came up with $200 million to pay for a new concert hall and the land on which to build it, it would likely be at least 10 years before the new hall would open, realistically. So, we do the best we can with what we’ve got, and the Oregon Symphony is a great orchestra of which I’m so proud to be a member.