January 21st, 2008 5:33 pm | by Stephen Marc Beaudoin News | Posted In: CLEAN UP

Witchy intrigue wins at the Oregon Symphony


Let's hear it again.

That's my gut reaction to living Scottish composer James Macmillan's The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, an alternately fascinating and frustrating newish work for orchestra (from 1990) which received a Portland premiere this weekend from the Oregon Symphony. In a promising but ultimately uneven performance conducted by music director Carlos Kalmar, the orchestra pumped out enough intriguing sound and good intention in this tough 20th century score to merit another hearing of the work.

Confession is worth the attention. Conceived as a sort of requiem for a Scottish "Everywoman" named Isobel Gowdie who was convicted, strangled and then burned at the stake amid hysterical 17th-century witchcraft allegations, the orchestral writing paints both the ineffably beautiful sadness of Gowdie's story (weepy glissandos in the strings; pungent harmonies; lush writing for the lower strings, who covered the work in glorious burnished tone) and the sensational scene of her confession and execution (piercing brass, a battery of rumbling percussion and - in one of the work's most effective moments - a shocking series of hideous dry staccato fortissimo attacks from the orchestra). It also lasts maybe six minutes longer than it needs to. Another reason to do the work again: the slippery hand-off sectional syncopations, snaky rhythmic figures in the brass and carefully voiced harmonies (Macmillan has a fabulous ear for orchestration) could use another go-round to tighten things up.

The program's second half brought the witty witchery of Felix Mendelssohn's complete Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night's Dream (this was from 1843), in its first full performance by the Symphony. This is an awful lot of charming music to swallow in one sitting, and I didn't leave entirely convinced that the work merited the attention. The much-celebrated overture clipped right along, but for all of its rhythmic snap the performance lacked an essential crackling energy that Mendelssohn's take on Shakespeare's fantastical forest-world seems to suggest.

There were two Oregon-based actors—Ted deChatelet and Maureen Porter—on hand to provide the spoken Shakespeare dialogue (straight from the play) which binds this light score together. But in place of scrupulously calibrated comic acting, deChatelet and Porter–eyes glued to their scripts—offered merely broad caricature. A missed opportunity.

And in their continuing tradition of curious decisions, the Symphony had the actors reading Shakespeare's verse in English (the original language of the Bard's setting), and the vocalists (the women of the Portland Symphonic Choir with guest soloists Sharin Apostolou and Amy Jo Arrington) singing it in German (the language of Mendelssohn's setting). Huh? Why not, if communicability and accessibility were the goals, offer a new English translation for the sung score? It seemed incongruous.

Kalmar danced along to the score, and the orchestra played handsomely for him. A note on the conductor: I like Kalmar more when he's doing less on the podium: a shrug of the shoulders to suggest a whimsical moment, or when he's bobbing his head along to an especially groovy passage. The barn-burning maestro histrionics—the flapping of conductor-wings, the shaking of his great mane of gray hair—I could do without (though they are awfully fun to watch).

It's about halfway through young Jun Iwasaki's first season as concertmaster, by the way, and he looks always more confident and sounds first-rate: a clarion tone, and utterly committed. Maybe he can get those dead-in-the-face back desk players to join him for the fun.

So, the real question: when's Confession coming back?

(photo above, the lower strings of the Oregon Symphony, courtesy of the Symphony)
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