alex ross

Carlos Kalmar and the Oregon Symphony: Taking the Show on the Road

Speaking of peripatetic Portland performers, Third Angle New Music Ensemble has embarked on its second trip to Asia in as many years, courtesy of an invitation from the Thailand International Composition Festival in Chiang Mai. What we heard of the program the group will play there in their Old Church concert in May tells us that the Thais are in a for a treat.

On the other side of the globe, the Metropolitan Youth Symphony has alighted in Vienna after a stint in Poland. What a wonderful opportunity for Lajos Balogh’s young musicians.

Meanwhile, reverberations from the Oregon Symphony‘s little jaunt to a concert venue in midtown Manhattan last May continue to echo. In his season round up in Musical America (disclosure: a publication I’ve written for), critic Sedgwick Clark proclaims:

My favorite concert of the [Spring for Music] series — and, as it turned out, the entire season — was by a conductor and orchestra making their New York debuts: the Oregon Symphony under its music director of eight years, Carlos Kalmar, in a remarkably imaginative program. Ives’s The Unanswered Question, John Adams’s The Wound-Dresser, and Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem were played without pause, an often pretentious practice but one that in this instance worked stunningly. After intermission came a positively searing Vaughan Williams Fourth Symphony, with fearless edge-of-seat tempos in the third and fourth movements, breathtakingly negotiated by all, the strings in particular. Kalmar and his virtuoso Oregonians will return to “Spring for Music” in 2013.

With a name like “Sedgwick,” you know he’s onto something. Clark’s pronouncement follows that of perhaps the world’s most esteemed classical music writer, the New Yorker’s Alex Ross. Those of us who heard the program at the acoustically woeful Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall will agree — the orchestra was on fire, although we missed the low notes and manifold other details you can discern at the renowned Carnegie, which is indeed a fine place to hear an orchestra, although to my ears, LA’s Disney Hall offers a clearer acoustic.

Nor was it a fluke: the band has steadily progressed in quality in the past few years, and may soon approach the front ranks of American orchestras. When stage-savvy symphony president Elaine Calder took the mike at the outset of the OSO’s homecoming concert after the Carnegie triumph and graciously bestowed on the band the rare and thoroughly appropriate honor of an actual entrance with the words “Please welcome the Oregon Symphony — your Oregon Symphony,” followed by an explosive round of cheers and applause, it brought a catch in the throat and tears to the eyes of even the most jaded critic. Without question, that performance has thrust the Oregon Symphony and Kalmar on to the national stage. The question now: how can the city seize this rare moment and provide our symphony with the resources it needs to sustain — and amplify — its newly exalted status? That’s a question we’ll explore here in future.

Even though Ross today declares it the best concert he heard last season (and he hears the best in the world), and the most thrilling I’ve heard from the OSO, a real highlight of last year’s music season, one of the best concerts I’ve heard in Portland … still, in its Schnitzer incarnation, that symphony performance might not have even been the best classical show I heard in Portland last year, though it’s certainly in the top three. Of the many strong candidates for top honors, I’d probably still lean toward Portland Baroque Orchestra’s magnificently moving March performance of J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion, with singers from Cappella Romana and Montreal’s Les Voix Baroques. Such is the level of classical music achievement in this city. I don’t think we needed the imprimatur of New York critics to tell us that, but it sure is sweet to hear. And it’s a further delight to see so many fine Portland musicians spreading the city’s sounds to the rest of the planet.

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