new recording by the oregon symphony

Well, it’s actually not officially for sale until February 1st, but if you want to pre-order, you can do so by contacting the Oregon Symphony’s ticket office by calling 503-228-1353 or 1-800-228-7343, Monday–Friday, 10 AM – 9 PM. You can also pre-order at a variety of online outlets, but if you want the maximum amount of dollars to go back to the orchestra, buying directly from us is the best bet. It’s like buying from Powell’s instead of Amazon.

At the risk of tooting my own horn, it sounds fantastic. The Copland Third Symphony, in particular, is remarkable given that it was largely recorded in one live performance last spring. There was a patch session afterward to take care of extraneous noise and a few other blemishes, but that is par for the course with all ‘live’ recordings, and to do this particular symphony in this little amount of recording time, in the words of Carlos Kalmar, is “virtually unthinkable”.

Yeah, we’re bad ass.

Antheil’s A Jazz Symphony also gets a gutsy performance, with kudos to keyboard player Carol Rich (also featured prominently in the Copland and Piston works along with Yoko Greeney) for her virtuosic playing. Piston’s Suite from The Incredible Flutist benefits from the world debut of violinist Ron Blessinger in his role as ‘The Dog’.

You can hear samples of the recording at Pentatone’s website.

It’s a recording to be proud of, and hopefully the third in a growing series of recordings that will spread the musical reach of the Oregon Symphony around the world. Many thanks to the Pentatone label for their faith in all of us at the Oregon Symphony.

rare sibelius and americana

Friday night we played the first of three concerts of what is, both on paper and in the flesh, a very unusual program. Firstly, it essentially runs in reverse. Rather than an “opener, concerto, intermission, big symphony” format that we’ve become quite accustomed to, the program starts with a rarely performed symphony of Sibelius – his Fourth (last performed in Portland in 1948!). Intermission follows, and then another rarity: Edward MacDowell’s Second Piano Concerto (played beautifully by Andre Watts), and closing with Aaron Copland’s beloved Appalachian Spring (long ‘a’ or short ‘a’ in Appalachian? It’s your choice, but anyone from the south will say it with a short ‘a’, and that seems plenty authentic to me).

James Gaffigan | Photo: Matt Henneck
James Gaffigan | Photo: Matt Henneck

Guest conductor James Gaffigan is on the podium, and it’s been an enjoyable week working with him. He is confident on the podium, easy to follow, and has ideas about the pieces that we’re performing. Those three things easily elevate any conductor to above the 80th percentile in my book. He’s also unique in his connection to the Oregon Symphony because he has quite a few friends in the orchestra with whom he went to school – several from the Cleveland Institute of Music, Rice University, and from the LaGuardia High School of the Performing Arts in New York. It’s sort of like old home week around here. Former OSO concertmaster Jun Iwasaki was also in town and at the concert last night.

Some thumbnail thoughts on the program:

  • The Sibelius really ought to have the nickname “The Introvert”. It’s as austere and severe a piece as Sibelius ever wrote, reflecting an agonized inner landscape as well as the most iconic aspects of Finland’s own landscape as well. It is a piece which, taken as an uncensored personal utterance, is bound to be divisive, and the orchestra is pretty divided between loving and hating it. That being said, you’ll not likely get another chance to hear it live in your lifetime here, so be sure to come take a listen. It’s a journey into the blackest center of a great composer’s soul.
  • MacDowell’s Second Piano Concerto really ought to supplant half a dozen overplayed and unwelcome warhorses (e.g. Tchaikovsky 1st, Rachmaninoff 2nd, etc) – it has great tunes, is a remarkable showpiece for the pianist, and is a novelty: an eminently listenable piano concerto that delivers all the goods, and no one’s really heard it for decades. Plus, Andre Watts is in fine fettle this weekend, he’s shredding it.
  • Appalachian Spring is welcome most any time it’s played, and it’s a great chance to hear how finely tuned an orchestra machine that the OSO has become in the past decade. Gaffigan is taking a pretty no-nonsense tack on this piece, which is welcome, because it really doesn’t need to over-sentimentalization that it’s usually subjected to.


short, seasons, and saint-saens

This week’s classical series program is quite an interesting one, at least to me. It begins with a symphony of Aaron Copland that is still seldom performed, the Second Symphony (also known as the Short Symphony). It’s a slight, three movement work, which could be compared to neoclassical works of Igor Stravinsky such as his Dumbarton Oaks or Symphony in Three Movements. It is instantly recognizable as Copland, but it predates the so-called Americana pieces (Billy the Kid, Appalachian Spring, etc.), so there is not the folk music influence that one might expect. It is rhythmically complex, with the time signatures changing often in the course of the outer movements. This rhythmic complexity, along with the transparent orchestration, led to some cancelled premieres by Stokowski’s Philadelphia Orchestra and Koussevitsky’s Boston Symphony due to a lack of adequate rehearsal time. Copland wrote this about the piece:

In [this work] I continued the effort, begun with the Piano Variations, to expand my style, both harmonically and rhythmically. The Short Symphony’s preoccupation is with complex rhythms, combined with clear textures. Sonority-wise, the most rhythmically complex moments have a certain lightness and clarity. The work is in three movements (fast, slow, fast) played without pause. The first movement is scherzo-like in character. The second movement is in three brief sections—the first rises to a dissonant climax, is sharply contrasted with a songlike middle part, and returns to the beginning. The finale is once again bright in color and rhythmically intricate.

Click here to listen to a 1980 NPR interview with Copland followed by a performance of the work by the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas.

The next piece on the program is Astor Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires (Estanciones Porteñas), which was originally written (between 1965-70) for Piazzolla’s own ensemble, a quintet of violin (doubling viola), piano, electric guitar, double bass, and bandoneón. In 1991 it was arranged by Jaques Morlenbaum for the ensemble of woodwind quintet, three cellos, and double bass. Finally, around 1999, the Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov made an ingenious arrangement featuring solo violin with string orchestra which combined the forms and gestures of Vivaldi’s original with Piazzolla’s South American seasons. The soloist for these concerts is an audience favorite, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. Click here to listen to a performance by violinist Steven Copes with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.

Finally, we come to one of the enduring warhorses of the symphonic repertoire, Camille Saint-Saëns’ Third Symphony “Organ”. It will feature a huge electronic organ that actually does a fair job of imitating a pipe organ (if you’ve heard the work at the Schnitz before, then you’ve heard this same organ used). I actually like this piece quite a lot. It gives our winds and brass a chance to really shine, and the big organ chord that opens the finale is always fun to hear (and to watch the audience react to).

The last interesting feature of this concert? It marks the first classical guest conducting appearance of former PYP music director (and now music director of the Memphis Symphony) Mei Ann Chen. It will be great to see how she’s grown in her years since being in Portland, and should be a nice homecoming for both her and the orchestra.