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).
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.