Wednesday, March 16, 2016

PSO: Shostakovich, Weill and the Rach 3

The Portland Symphony continued its outstanding season Sunday afternoon with the major draw of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, featuring American pianist Andrew von Oeyen, and a pair of work, one familiar, one not so much, to open the concert.

Up first was Shostakovich’s Suite for Variety Orchestra, one of the 20th century giant’s lesser known works. Those familiar with only the brooding, dark, dramatic intensity of his symphonies, quartets and other large scale works were in for a surprise. Shostakovich created this suite by recycling music from some of his film scores and the result is one of charming elegance, possessing a certain déjà vu which could be mistaken as the soundtrack to, say, Downton Abbey. Frequently criticized for his boldness, excessive, elaborate orchestrations and a certain bluntness or brutality, in the Suite for Variety Orchestra, Shostakovich is often criticized for creating something, frothy and unsubstantial with a “variety” instruments including two pianos, accordion, saxophone and more. Despite such dismissals, performance of this too infrequently played work wins over audiences and certainly such was the case Sunday, when a sold out audience roared its approval while the last notes of the stirring finale were still hanging in the air.

Shostakovich’s was followed up by another suite, this time Kurt Weill’s, from his Three Penny Opera. Familiar tunes from the opera (more frequently performed as a musical theatre piece) were given lavish treatments to evoke the world of Weill and collaborator Bertolt Brecht’s most famous work, and, as in the concert’s opening work, the orchestra responded Maestro Robert Moody’s decisive interpretation with a spot-on, technically assured performance. Moody, with a bit of inspiration, added music from the opera’s finale not included in the suite. A bold move that served to end the suite with a far more satisfying sense of finish than one typically hears.

Following intermission came the Rachmaninoff, which is what sold out the house. The Rach 3 (as it’s often called by enthusiasts and fans) is often referred to as “The Mount Everest of Piano Concerti,” and Mr. von Oeyen certainly approached it that way. While many a pianist rips and blasts his or her way through the moments of virtuosic bombast, this leaves many of the concerto’s more subtle passages feeling like longueurs, something to merely “endure” while we wait for the “good stuff.” Von Oeyen is not that pianist. Instead, he attacked the subtle intricacies with a Mozartean delicacy and finesse, allowing their gracefulness to contrast beautifully with the explosions never too far behind. This made the concerto, even to those who know it well, feel more natural, spontaneous, and, as happens all too rarely, surprising, allowing those bolder sections to stand out even more.

Moody, and the orchestra provided a true partnership, responding beautifully to von Oeyen’s interpretation. There was a lush roundness to the strings, with the cello section, in particular offering an extraordinarily deep richness. The concerto ended with the predictable roar and an instant standing ovation (one of those truly worth getting up for) as Mr. von Oeyen returned for three or four curtain calls, before Maestro Moody pushed him out one last time, for an encore. What does one follow up the Rach 3 with? Pretty much anything you want. Von Oeyen choose the Meditation from Massenet’s Thaïs. His playing of it was gentle, dreamy and put his audience where he wanted them: in a swoon.

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