Oregon Symphony review: going big

Orchestra's season closing concerts feature large scale Mahler and Stravinsky, and a big success in a "Little Russian" symphony


On May 15, people came for the show, and thanks to dancers and puppets, they got it. And thanks to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, they also got some memorable music.

The “show” in question was the third in this season’s Oregon Symphony series of multi-media events, called Persephone. Earlier installments were based on Bela Bartok’s 1911 opera  Bluebeard’s Castle  and Olivier Messiaen’s 1948 opus Turangalila, and they involved projected images, creative lighting, unusual instruments (an ondes martenot for Messiaen), among other effects. For Igor Stravinsky’s Persephone, which premiered in 1934, the requisite large orchestra, giant choir, children’s choir, tenor soloist, and female narrator were abetted by the puppetry of multiple Emmy award-winning Michael Curry and dancer Anna Marra, from Portland’s BodyVox. The whole bunch were led by OSO maestro Carlos Kalmar.

Oregon Symphony’s ‘Persephone’ featured striking design by Oregon’s Michael Curry. Photo: Brud Giles.

The 48-minute Persephone show came after the intermission, with the orchestra onstage before an evocative set featuring a glowing sun/moon. The text by André Gide was declaimed and sung in French by, respectively, French actress Pauline Chelviller, who did the role a couple of years ago under director Peter Sellars, and American tenor Paul Groves, an opera singer in considerable demand. Gide famously didn’t care for Stravinsky’s refusal to treat his text as poetry and boycotted the premiere.

His point was well taken. Throughout his career, Stravinsky was never enamored of close textual settings, preferring to regard words as merely syllables and to appropriate their meaning in a more general sense. So in Persephone, the outlines of the music follow the heroine, who is the goddess of springtime, as she is abducted from earth and made to be the underworld mate of Hades, god of the dead, then released (for a while) each year to ensure the appearance of spring on earth before returning to her life below. In a generally vapid score (one of Stravinsky’s weakest), the orchestra makes some Stravinskyan gestures (introductory statements by high-pitched brasses of percussion, decorous string writing in his Neo-Classical stage) to accompany the narrative.

But the real heroes of this production were the lively massed choruses — Portland State University’s Chamber Choir and members of the Pacific Youth Choir — the puppeteer, and the featured dancer. Combined with the lighting director, these participants never let the action flag, even when Stravinsky’s music strongly suggests it might. They carry the “show.” I was especially enchanted by Mr. Curry’s flying spirits, by his puppet of Persephone (also known in mythology as Proserpina), and especially by Ms. Marra’s mind-bending contortions as a flying version of Persephone. She flew through the air as if freed from gravity, every gesture lyrical and lovely.

Before the puppets descended,  a cheering and shouting audience saluted the concert opener, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2, the so-called “Little Russian” (a reference to Ukraine and the Ukrainian melodies that suffuse it). This wonderful piece, last performed by the band 15 years ago, does not make its way onto concert stages as often as Tchaikovsky’s “big three” — the fourth, fifth, and sixth — and this is a shame. The “Little Russian” is a jewel, as Maestro Kalmar demonstrated. The horn/bassoon duets at the beginning and end of the first movement are only two of its many felicities. Maestro Kalmar very wisely took the final fourth movement briskly. It was a superior performance of music that, in its modest way, outshone both Stravinsky’s Persephone and the gargantuan symphony they performed the following week.

Giant Steps

On May 21, Maestro Kalmar and the Symphony closed their season with a genuine blockbuster, Gustav Mahler’s enormous Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection,” written in 1895. In this performance the orchestra, massed choruses, and soloists finally succeeded (perhaps they did in a 2004 performance, also under Kalmar) in conquering the notoriously awful acoustics of the Schnitz by increasing the orchestra numbers to around 90 and using more than 100 choristers. Sound in the Schnitzer concert hall is generally swallowed by the balcony overhang and iffy for those in the highest seats. For once, everything could be clearly heard everywhere!

The band didn’t disappoint in this monumental piece, the appellation (“Resurrection”) of which is secular/spiritual, but not religious. The massed forces of Mahler’s score (nine horns, six trumpets, four trombones, plus six percussionists including two sets of four timpani) were glorious, and the two soloists — soprano Tamara Wilson and mezzo Elizabeth DeShong — sang their small parts to excellent effect, especially Ms. DeShong, who showed a rich voice seamless in its range.

Ethan Sperry conducts Oregon Repertory Singers.

The combined PSU choirs, prepared by artistic director Ethan Sperry, sounded, in a word, great. Here at last is a choral ensemble capable of doing justice to the Oregon Symphony’s annual choral orgasms, always until now accompanied by the fuzzy and underpowered Portland Symphonic Choir. Let these young singers do it! It was a wonderful moment when, on cue, the singers stood, 20 minutes into the fifth and final movement, to belt out the final chorus.

I’ve often thought of Mahler’s piece as a series of movements for orchestra rather than a symphony. Mahler himself implicitly acknowledged this by writing in a pause between the first and second movements; he thought the audience would need time to be ready for leisurely and angst-free music after the tumult of the opener — Allegro maestoso: With complete gravity and solemnity. And in fact Mahler wrote the various movements over a thirteen-year period from 1888 to 1901. He also wrote a program for the final symphony, in which the first movement represents a funeral, the second a remembrance of happy times, the third a representation of life as pointless activity, the fourth a desire to be released from such a meaningless life, and the fifth a hope for resurrection in the form of continual renewal. Not much later, Mahler disavowed this program.

The Oregon Symphony joined Pacific Youth Choir and Portland State Chamber Choir in its season-ending performance of Mahler’s second symphony. Photo: Jacob Wade/Oregon Symphony.

Kalmar and the Symphony observed the pause after the first movement and then gave a limpid performance of the peaceful ten-minute second movement (Andante moderato: Very leisurely. Never rush). The third and fourth movements were exemplary, leading to the fifth (and final) movement, which lasts a full 30 minutes. And this is when the entire ensemble took off, after hearing trumpets and horns offstage not once but twice, and took us to the finale, not boisterous but serene and mysterious. The audience responded with the richest applause of the season, a perfect closer.

Recommended recordings

• Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 2

Tchaikovsky: Symphonies Nos. 1-3, London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev conducting (LSO Live LSO0710), 2012.

• Stravinsky Persephone

Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Igor Stravinsky conducting, Ithaca College Concert Choir, Gregg Smith Singers; tenor Michele Molese, narrator Vera Zorina (Sony Classical 08876971031126), 1966.

• Mahler Symphony No. 2

New York Philharmonic, Bruno Walter conducting (7-Sony Classical 920102), 1958.

Terry Ross is a Portland freelance journalist and the director of The Classical Club, through which he offers classical music appreciation sessions. He can be reached at classicalclub@comcast.net.

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One Response.

  1. Jeff Winslow says:

    I remember the Mahler #2 performance in 2004 very well. For all the many things the OSO and the community owes James DePreist, he never quite got the band to turn Mahler into coherent music. I came in not knowing what this new guy, Carlos Kalmar, would be able to accomplish. I went out thrilled that finally I’d get to hear well-played Mahler live in my home town. The Mahler performances since then have only amplified the feeling.

    More than just well-played – in particular I remember a feeling of being lifted out of my seat at the three noisy climaxes (two in the finale) that are variously interpreted as rage or disgust, but for me feel like overwhelming awe in the presence of the divine. Words can hardly describe the experience.

    I didn’t quite get the same feeling this time, but my expectations were much higher and the orchestra may have been distributed differently. It was still a thrill, and I totally agree, kudos for the PSU choral groups and Ethan Sperry also.

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