Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Portland Symphony: From Russia With Love

Last evening, the Portland Symphony Orchestra's evening began on a high note - and built up from there.

The concert started off with the world premiere of Maine composer Elliott Schwartz's "Diamond Jubilee" commissioned by the PSO in honor of Schwartz's 75th birthday. In three movements, Schwartz recalls 75 years of life on planet earth, displaying humor, pathos, beauty and even a bit of banality (working a ringing phone into the mix!) throughout. As each movement began a video screen presented names, events, products of food and technology, later replaced by images of those same people, places and things. Scored for an enormous orchestra, including five very busy percussionists, offstage chorus and electronics, the work packed a dramatic and satisfying wallop and I look forward to hearing it again. Afterwards, a brief onstage ceremony honored Schwartz with a proclamation from the Maine State Legislature, for all his contributions to the musical life of this great State.

Next up was the Prokofiev Piano Concert No. 3 in C Major. Bold and often daring, Prokofiev's much loved concerto allows its soloist - or demands its soloist - to display an athletic showmanship with sections recalling the complex, rapid passagework in the keyboard works of Bach and Scarlatti. Portland was blessed by having one of today's most exciting pianists, Andrew von Oeyen, on hand to do justice to this most exciting of concerti. von Oeyen played with a unique combination of strength and clarity - delicacy even - revealing at all times a formidable technique that left many (myself included) in awe. Interestingly, there is not a lot of visual showmanship from this young pianist, no bouncing off the bench, flailing arms or other dramatics often associated with virtuoso players, and even more interestingly, none was necessary: von Oeyen trusts and respects the music (and a faultless technique) to create its own excitement and the payoff is enormous. Choosing a brisker tempo than some performances I've heard, Maestro Moody struck both a balance and synchronization between soloist and orchestra that was nearly perfect from the very beginning as the strings begin their moto perpetuoto chugging making von Oeyen's entrance into this happy fray a breathless delight.

Slower passages, including the theme and variations of the concerto's dreamlike central movement, came off marvelously with genuine lyricism allowing Prokofiev's strange and beautiful harmonies to envelop the hall like some aural mist. The handling of the final Allegro-ma non troppo movement - allowed Prokofiev's "argument" to make great sense and the beautiful "violence" to break out as soloist and orchestra seem to perpetually be taking the lead from each other. The final moments of this concerto are as exciting as anything in the concerto repertoire and nothing was skimped over here, the Portland players sawing away energeticaly, von Oeyen dazzling all with the compoer's famous (and eagerly anticipated) glissandi and double handed chromatic passages that end the piece. The reaction from the house was immediate, roars of "bravo!" demanding Mr. von Oeyen return for several curtain calls.

A second great work, Shostakovich's cathartic Symphony No. 5, filled the second half of this Russian-themed program. Again, the Portland Symphony players displayed amazing control and Moody's sense of the piece was almost programmatic in the way the movements held together. The opening movement properly set a tone of melancholy gravitas Shostakovich demands here, the fugue for strings achingly, beautifully sad. No performance is perfect as evidenced by several moments which were slightly marred by the horns who, in all fairness have their work cut out for them by the composer. These were brief and while unfortunate, altogether forgiveable, particularly in light of everything else that was going splendidly onstage.

Once the final movement - with its blustery thunder - began, there was no turning back, even though Moody's tempo was considerably slower than it's often played, (recalling Rostropovich's epic way with this piece), This was a good thing and allowed the orchestra to strike an ideal, almost unnerving blend of romantic sweep with a military-like brutality, without letting the movement's ever forward momentum to flag all the way to the almost numbing (in a good way!) conclusion. The repeated high A's from the strings had that quality Rostropovich called "like a fork pressing into the brain." As earlier in the evening, the house roared its approval. Not even the 8 degree chill in the air could halt the elated mood as the smiling crowd filed out into the night.

Labels: , , , , , , ,