This weekend’s Oregon Symphony concerts are going to be special – local snarky publication notwithstanding. First of all, there will be a world premiere of a new piece by Gabriella Smith, entitled Biolumnescence Chaconne. It’s fantastic. The orchestra likes it very much, and our audience in Salem Friday night loved it as well. There’s also an wonderful piece by Missy Mazzoli on the program, Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres), written just a few years back. In addition, one of my favorite violinists on the planet, Augustin Hadelich is back with the outrageous Paganini Violin Concerto No. 1. It’s a silly piece, but Hadelich’s approach is anything but. Virtuosic AF, as the kids say these days. If he plays the encore he did Friday in Salem, it will be magic. Incidentally, our Salem audience gave a standing ovation after the first movement of the Paganini. Not something I’m inclined to endorse, but it showed how effective his playing was! Finally, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, arr. Ravel. Not much to say about this one – you know what to expect here.
This May marked the end of my 22nd season as a member of the Oregon Symphony. It’s not an auspicious number – it doesn’t end with a zero or a five, and it’s not 30 years or more. But it’s my number, and you make do with what you’ve got. This year just sort of flew by, and it seemed like a good thing to look back and take stock of what was really good about this season, and maybe take a look at what I’m looking forward to the most next season.
The orchestra is sounding better than ever. Lots of star players in our principal ranks, and lots of depth in the sections as well. People show up prepared and ready to work. We are all getting along really well, too. People hang out and genuinely enjoy each other’s company. That is something of a rarity in the orchestral world, I hear.
The Mahler Seventh that ended our season could qualify. This particular Mahler symphony has long eluded me, but our performances this year opened up more of what was good in the piece for me. It’s taken three sets of performances for me to get to this place of uneasy coexistence with the piece, and it’s still not in my top five list. But … the performances were still powerful and memorable.
Gabriel Kahane‘s piece commissioned by the OSO emergency shelter intake form was astounding. A major political statement (without being overtly political) that deals with the issues around homelessness in America. So much to love about this piece – even on a first hearing. Distinctive orchestrations, arching melodies, virtuosic close-harmony vocal work. Immediately accessible, but also worthy of a deep-dive examination, too. Kahane’s is a major new voice in the world of music as activism and art. I very much hope that the orchestra is able to record this piece. It deserves a wide hearing in the times we find ourselves.
Violinist Augustin Hadelich‘s Beethoven Violin Concerto was further evidence that he will likely take his place in the pantheon of great violinists. A performance that was virtuosic, but not showy, with a tone that hovered between luxurious and silvery as the music demanded it, and all completely to the service of the music itself. And the Paganini encores didn’t hurt.
Pianist Kirill Gerstein came to town and performed a concerto double-bill: Arnold Schoenberg’s formidable (yet very Viennese) Piano Concerto, and George Gershwin’s perennial favorite, Rhapsody in Blue. The Gershwin he’d played here before, and it was as fantastic as ever. But the Schoenberg was a revelation to me. I actually kind of have a strange fascination with the music of the Second Viennese School, and to have this work put into such clear focus for me – the very Viennese-ness of it made obvious (in a good way) – was one of the artistic and intellectual achievements that will long stand in my memory. Audiences, of course, didn’t give a shit, but that didn’t matter to me. It was an important piece for them to hear, and I think that most people were pleasantly surprised at how much they came away with from that contact.
John Adams’ Absolute Jest, which featured the St. Lawrence String Quartet as soloists, was a fiendish delight. Among the chief thrills for me was seeing this great quartet of long-standing play with such conviction and energy – sometimes verging on the savage – only a few feet away! And the piece itself was so much fun to play (when not counting like crazy!), I’d love to get another chance to play it before I get too old to do it justice! And the brief pre-performance ‘roadmap’ lecture-demo led by first violinist Geoff Nuttall was the perfect example of brevity, wit, and some really first-rate Beethoven!
The season opening gala (Sep 23) brings diva Reneé Fleming back to Portland, and that’s always something to look forward to! The program isn’t yet set, but that doesn’t much matter.
Our first full Classical series set (Sep 29-30) is one that I’m very much looking forward to. Why? Two words: Brahms Fourth. Love, love, love it. Plus soloist Inon Barnatan plays the rarely-heard Copland Piano Concerto, and guest conductor Jun Märkl is a favorite, too.
The following set of Classical concerts (Oct 13-15) also looks promising. Stellar violinist Karen Gomyo returns after a lengthy absence to play the Sibelius Violin Concerto, which is also a favorite piece of mine. And Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony will show off the orchestra as well.
Not to say that next season is front-loaded, but I’m also very much looking forward to Jeffrey Kahane‘s performance of Andrew Norman‘s piano concerto Split (Oct 27-29). Kahane is one of my favorite pianists, and Norman is one of the hottest composers on the scene right now. The bad: Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. I want to scream every time I see that on our schedule.
If you enjoyed the spectacular visual feast that Michael Curry designed for Stravinsky’s Persephone last season, the new staging of Petrushka (Nov 3-5) by Doug Fitch promises to be even more impressive, not the least because the music is by far superior.
Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony (Jan 26-28) is one of my favorites, and it’s been a long time since I’ve played it, and that puts it on my list. Violinist Viviane Hagner makes her OSO debut playing the Violin Concerto by Korean composer Unsuk Chin, who is – gasp – a woman! I’m really looking forward to hearing her piece (which won her the hugely prestigious Grawemeyer Award in 2004) played by the violinist who gave its premiere. She’s a composer that I’ve heard a lot about, but haven’t been much exposed to her music. That I will remedy this year!
Next season brings another big work of John Adams (Feb 23-25), this time his Doctor Atomic Symphony. It’s essentially a reworked suite of his opera Doctor Atomic, which centered around the controversial and conflicted scientist Robert Oppenheimer. Stunning music that I can’t wait to tackle!
John Corigliano‘s Symphony No. 1 “Of rage and remembrance” (Apr 6-8) hasn’t been performed in Portland since I started work here in 1995. It is long overdue.
The season ends with the now traditional Mahler symphony – this time his Symphony No. 1 “Titan” (May 18-20). It was the first piece of his that I ever played. So much fun to play, and is also paired with the return of force-of-nature vocalist Storm Large in Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins, which we were to have performed at our abruptly cancelled second Carnegie Hall performance in 2013.