Weekend MusicWatch: American voices

Portland Opera's Candide runs this weekend and next. Photo: Cory Weaver.

Portland Opera revives its 2002 production of Leonard Bernstein’s 1957 operetta Candide at Keller Auditorium Friday and Sunday, and the run continues next Thursday and Saturday. It contains some of Bernstein’s — which is to say some of America’s — greatest music. However, the book has always presented problems, and the show has gone through a bewildering number of incarnations in search of a story that would do the music justice. PO’s Christopher Mattaliano based this original production (with sets originally from Austin Lyric Opera) on a 1982 version that represented neither Bernstein’s first nor final thoughts on the subject, but is staged more often than most. In places, it’s very funny, and satirical throughout, succumbing to cynicism (as did Voltaire) a few times, then reveling in it. But its glorious music makes it always worth seeing — a flawed but irresistible gem of American music. Here are some unusual views of PO’s production, courtesy of local comic artists.

While working on Candide with playwright Lillian Hellman in 1955, Bernstein wrote incidental music for another of her plays drawn from a French original, The Lark, based on the life of Joan of Arc. Conductor Robert Shaw saw one of the performances and suggested that the composer turn it into a choral work. The first free date on Lenny’s ever-jammed calendar (he was also embarking on West Side Story and would not long afterward take over a little New York band called the Philharmonic) apparently arose 33 years later, because that’s when he finally got around to using the material in his Missa Brevis, which was performed last weekend by Portland Symphonic Choir.

Augmented by excellent performances from countertenors Mark Woodward and Gary Shannon and percussionists Gordon Rencher and Tom Sessa and conducted by Kathryn Lehmann, like everything else on this all-American music concert (the rest conducted by regular music director Stephen Zopfi), it was performed with admirable precision and rich sound. Yet it somehow lacked the liveliness I associate with Bernstein, maybe because it looks more to the Renaissance than to his beloved jazz influences, or because it was performed here by a massive chorus in a big, reverberant sacred space, Northwest Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral.

Portland Symphonic Choir sang American tunes last week.

After a suitably stirring opener by one of the earliest known American composers, William Billings, the chorus, smartly accompanied by guitarist Ian Luxton, sang a contemporary four movement cantata based on Civil War-related texts by Walt Whitman, A Procession Winding, which offers some vivid scene painting before losing momentum toward the end. Another contemporary work, Eric Whitacre’s popular Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine, opened the second half, complete with more percussion and the choir whooshing away at the end. Zopfi commendably spotlighted another young American composer, 23 year old Eric Sayre’s heartfelt, solemn In Paradisum, before concluding with Aaron Copland’s magnificently heartwarming The Promise of Living from his 1954 opera, The Tender Land, whose lyrics (“the promise of living, the promise of growing, the promise of ending is labor and sharing and loving”) would be enough to earn the composer, famously grilled by McCarthyites around that time, tar and feathers at this year’s Republican primaries.

Copland was also on the program at the Oregon Symphony concerts featuring the one time Next Big Violin Star Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, which continued the orchestra’s recent run of solid, often inspired performances, this one with guest conductor and former Portland Youth Philharmonic music director Mei-Ann Chen. “It’s good to be home!” the former OSO assistant conductor exclaimed at the outset, before launching into Copland’s exciting Short Symphony, which sounded not at all as radical as it apparently did in its 1933 premiere. Astor Piazzolla’s delightful if diffuse The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires (an orchestral arrangement from a chamber original, with quotes from that other seasonal quartet that drew titters from an appreciative audience) showed that Salerno-Sonnenberg has lost none of her uninhibited style or easy connection to her audience, and even though she’s no longer quite the headliner she used to be, she sounds great, draws a crowd and is making much more interesting music than a typical classical violin star.

The concert’s other soloist, the ubiquitous (and curiously uncredited, or at least I couldn’t find a mention in the program) organist Douglas Schneider starred in Camille Saint-Saën’s brash Symphony #3, in which the organ charges in and pretty much seizes the floor by virtue of sheer volume. It touched off a torrent of cheers comparable to those in the orchestra’s previous crowd pleaser, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

No word on whether the soloist in this weekend’s Oregon Symphony shows, Arnaldo Cohen, will make the, er, dramatic entrance shown above in one of the chestnuts of the Romantic rep: Tchaikovsky’s mighty Piano Concerto #1. The program also features a powerful pair of 20th century works: Sibelius’s last — or is it? — symphony, 1924’s whiskey-fueled, one-movement seventh, and the turbulent Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia Benjamin Britten extracted from his great opera Peter Grimes. I hope Portland Opera, which has been having quite a time with Britten’s work in recent years, can bring us a production of this one soon.

Speaking of the OSO, you can now hear some of its performances on Portland’s all-classical radio KQAC and its associated stations around the state, or via its on-demand player online. This week’s broadcast features the orchestra’s urgent performances of Mozart’s breakthrough Piano Concerto #9 (one of the first signs that he might amount to more than a facile prodigy) and Shostakovich’s 20th century masterpiece (and perpetually debated — was it a celebration of Stalinism or a concealed repudiation?), Symphony #5.

David Hattner conducted Portland Youth Philharmonic at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall last weekend

The OSO’s home, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, boasted another big crowd last weekend at the Portland Youth Philharmonic’s concert. As usual, the kids sounded nearly as persuasive as many professional grownup orchestras —and fresher than most. Except for a few barely detectable slips in an otherwise able performance Ernest Bloch’s Hebraic Suite (written during his years living on the Oregon Coast), the orchestra excelled in Jennifer Higdon’s popular, Coplandish Blue Cathedral and especially in pioneering Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas’s spooky 1938 Sensemaya, which sounded like it got the most rehearsal time, probably because of its unusual meters (sevens and elevens), as music director David Hattner lucidly explained in a brief demo before they played it — and played it brilliantly. It’s just astonishing how well these young musicians can handle music that would have challenged even the best orchestras a generation or two ago.

With Portland Baroque Orchestra’s season over, early music fans have to venture south to get their 18th century fix this weekend. Sunday brings the Oregon Bach Collegium’s all-Handel concert at United Lutheran Church. Also on Sunday, the superb Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt inaugurates the new piano at Salem’s St. Paul’s Episcopal church with concert of Baroque music by J.S. Bach, Rameau and Couperin.

A couple of wide ranging smaller scale, guitar-enhanced shows cap the weekend at Portland’s Old Church: on Sunday the ATA Ensemble performs Gershwin, Falla, Mozart and more, and on Monday, the Athens Guitar Trio plays music from the Renaissance to recently.

Speaking of guitars, unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend the Oregon Guitar Quartet’s release concert for its excellent new CD at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall last week, but here’s a taste of what it was like.

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