October 19th, 2009 | by WW Editorial Staff News | Posted In: CLEAN UP

Live Reviews: Oregon Symphony's "Bach, Beethoven and Bernstein"

Oregon Symphony's music director, Carlos Kalmar, adroitly conducts a program that spans old and contemporary masterpieces. The orchestra captures the grace and spirit of the dances in Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 4. The symphony's premiere of Bernstein's dramatic 1949 Symphony No. 2 was lively, and Russian-American pianist Kirill Gerstein, who at fourteen was the youngest student at Berklee College of Music, gave a technically impressive performance. Despite some uneven dynamics in the allegretto of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, the piece was well interpreted and competently performed. An ambitious, eclectic selection that makes for a thoroughly exciting program. SASHA INGBER.

It may have taken sixty years, but the Oregon Symphony finally got around to giving its premiere of the second symphony of America's greatest man of classical music, Leonard Bernstein last weekend, and it was worth the wait. The orchestra gave a taut, appropriately dramatic performance of a powerfully expressive piece that — like its brilliant creator — can sometimes go on a little much and be a little full of itself, yet is always worth hearing. Pianist Kirill Gerstein loped and swung though the jazzy passages with easy panache, music director Carlos Kalmar made sure the orchestra conveyed the work's heavily determined narrative structure so well that you didn't have to know the backstory plotline (based on W.H. Auden's poem The Age of Anxiety) to appreciate this purely instrumental piece's journey, and the players smoothly negotiated its shifting moods.
The program's closer, Beethoven's stirring Symphony # 7, may be the grandest piece in Western orchestral music, but it poses plenty of potential pitfalls, not the least being overfamiliarity; it's been performed here at least twice — successfully both times— in the past year or so, by the OSO and Columbia Symphony Orchestra. Even the greatest works of art can have their surprises and excitement dulled by too many exposures, which leads to another common drawback: overly mannered performances by conductors desperate to Say Something New about a warhorse. The resulting substitution of the conductor's judgment for the composer's often turns a monument into a fire hydrant; they leave their mark on it, all right, but….
Beethoven's music has often suffered from such desecrations from conductors determined to make his Classical/proto Romantic works sound like the bombastic high Romantic music of successors such as Berlioz and Bruckner. Recent recordings that scrape away a century of encrusted anachronistic over-Romanticization and return to the composer's original intentions (including metronome markings often much faster than almost anyone tried until recently) can be revelatory, even (to diehards who grew up on the old misinterpretations) shocking. In last weekend's crisp performances of the Seventh, for example, Kalmar took the celebrated second movement at a relative brisk pace, startlingly faster than many allegedly “classic” recordings and even many of today's performances, which seem to confuse plodding with profundity. But the movement is marked “Allegretto” (a little fast), not “Andante” or another Italianism for “slow” or “ponderous,” which is how conductors striving for Big Serious Statements often wallow in it. As usual, Beethoven proved correct, and the orchestra proved up to the challenge of the lively tempos, with no loss of clarity or power.
The other movements featured some deeply committed, edge-of-the-seat performances from all sections, well-judged balances, fiery yet nuanced playing throughout, and a galloping finale that coaxed a deserved standing O from a good portion of the audience, including at least one jaded critic. This was unsentimental, lean yet muscular Beethoven, bereft of obvious flubs and of any hint of rote playing despite its familiarity, and at times genuinely thrilling, with all the unexpected oomph that blew away its first audiences two centuries ago.
Kalmar has demonstrably improved the orchestra's sound over the years, but in the past some of his orchestra's performances have struck me as too tightly controlled, too mannered, or just baffling. There was a little of all that here, too, but in this and other recent concerts, you get the sense that he's finally got the band he really wants. I don't know what goes on behind the scenes, but judging by what happens onstage, I'll rashly speculate that, sort of like Nate McMillan with this current crop of Portland Trailblazers, both leaders now trust their fine players enough to loosen the reins a bit, so that the passion can come through without sacrificing the precision they've so carefully cultivated. This weekend, the result was stylishly accomplished music making at a remarkably high level.
I've heard great orchestras like the Cleveland Orchestra and (on a good day) the New York Philharmonic perform at Carnegie Hall, and while the Oregon Symphony hasn't reached those exalted heights yet, when they play that storied venue in 2011, if the band can deliver at the level they did this weekend, they'll do Oregon proud. BRETT CAMPBELL
 
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