Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Skrowaczewski (92) and Piemontesi (32) show that age doesn't matter at concert with Oregon Symphony (119)

Stanisław Skrowaczewski
Guest review by Phillip Ayers

As I listened to the Oregon Symphony and its guest conductor Stanisław Skrowaczewski (aged 92) and piano soloist Piemontesi (aged 32) on Sunday (November 22nd) at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, I thought of a line from a hymn I remembered from my youth: "Bright youth and snow-crowned age … ". But sentimentality aside, observing the contrast in the ages of these sterling performers was a rarity and something to be savored for a long, long time to come. Concertgoers were treated to an evening of music, ranging from the Classical through the Romantic to 20th century edginess. And it was presided over by the phenomenal Skrowaczewski, conductor laureate of the Minnesota Orchestra and veteran of many other ensembles, including the Hallé Orchestra. He celebrated his 92nd birthday last month and I could not help but marvel as I read the program notes before the concert and then saw him make his way through the violin section before the first offering of the evening. Michael Anthony, in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in an article on Skrowaczewski on his 90th birthday quotes him: "My health is poor, but my spirit is very high." He lives with a pacemaker and has had eye trouble for many years. Still, he goes on. "Off the podium, Skrowaczewski looks frail. On the other hand, standing in front of an orchestra, he seems to gain energy, as if drawing on currents of electricity from the musicians around him." This was evident in his debut with the Oregon Symphony!

Skrowaczewski walked slowly, yet deliberately to the podium, gingerly ascending onto its one step. But then, he lit into Witold Lutosławski's “Concerto for Orchestra,” with an energy that seemed a bit restrained but was not; this conductor was very much in command. A cynic might say this piece is noisy and showy, but I was struck with the composer's expert use of instrumentation highlighted by the shimmering middle movement and the academic passacaglia, toccata and the glorious chorale at the end. As the program notes explain, "The virtuosity of each section of the orchestra is highlighted in the exquisite layering of rhythms and colors that permeate its three movements." But I missed the massive "wall of sound" in spots in this piece, as well as in the Brahms later on, that I guess we Portlanders are used to with Carlos Kalmar's creation of that "wall." Still the Lutosławski work proved interesting, especially in its last movement that began with a barely discernible theme for the passacaglia, introduced by the contrabasses. It was delightful to hear the charming "corale" played mainly by the brass while a string quartet played an obbligato against it. Such subtleties could well have been lost, but Skrowaczewski made certain that they were prominent enough to be noticed.

My concert-companion (my spouse) remarked, as the piano was moved out for the Mozart concerto, quoting the old Monty Python phrase, "And now, for something completely different!" And it was different from the opener, not only from an earlier musical era and its use of a much-reduced orchestra (e.g., a tympani player in the Mozart and six percussionists in its predecessor), but in the artist who came onstage. Francesco Piemontesi, a 32-year-old Swiss pianist and possessor of an impressive list of performances, sat down to play Mozart's last piano concerto. "Doing the math," one could realize that Mozart himself was a little older than Piemontesi's age when he played this concerto, his last public appearance of his brief life. Here was "bright youth" - both the composer's and the performer's - at work in a fluid, non-bravado, subtle, even understated way.

This concerto - sunny, elegant and bright - did not reveal the many personal difficulties the composer/performer was enduring. The multiple cadenzas, rather unusual for a single concerto, as the notes remind us, were executed with great grace and skill by Piemontesi. In listening to other performances of this concerto, I noticed how heavy-handed some performers are, especially with the virtuosic passages. There was nothing of that showiness with this artist; it was straightforward and brilliant. Despite some intonation problems and an awkward entrance by a horn, this was a near-perfect performance of this gem in my estimation. At its end, as applause resounded, the pianist and the conductor greeted one another with the nonagenarian putting his hands on the shoulder of the 30-something as though to bless him and encourage him. Sixty years between these men were brought together in that tender and memorable moment.

After the intermission, Johannes Brahms' excellent third symphony was offered. "You can't go wrong with Brahms" might be a hackneyed expression, but it is so very true. I wondered how many times Skrowaczewski might have conducted this work (he has made a recording of it, according to the notes) so that he would not have to use a score. From where I sat, I noticed the score was on the podium but was never opened. Committing all the Brahmsian nuances to memory is no small feat for any conductor, much less one in his nineties! Michael Anthony, cited above, said that, with age and its limitations, the conductor uses small gestures. There are no wild movements of the arms or swooping around at the podium: just simple gestures. And it is amazing to me that much of the time the conductor did not look at certain sections of the orchestra, but trusted them to know - and play - their stuff.

Throughout its four movements - and the last in a minor key with which Brahms broke with symphonic custom - the listener was fully engaged and involved in the craft of the composer's skill, drawing from themes such richness and subtlety. Clara Schumann is said to have exclaimed in her thank-you note to Brahms when he presented her with the score to his Third Symphony, "What a work! What a poem! … I could not tell you which movement I loved most." This symphony is massive, but touches of sweetness and tenderness are always there. That such emerged from the pen of a somewhat cantankerous old bachelor is always endearing somehow.

In the third movement, the theme of which later became a popular song, "Goodbye Again," is played a number of times by different sections and soloists in the orchestra. Particularly beautiful was the horn solo by principal John Cox that was played with exquisite beauty. New members of the orchestra, Martha Long (principal flute) and James Shields (principal clarinet), while not beginning full-time until next fall, were present and in the orchestra for this concert.

Before the evening's concert began, OSO president Scott Showalter remarked that this concert is the first to be given after the treachery perpetrated in Paris, Beirut and Mali recently. Art will always provide us with a grace and a profundity, even in the worst of our public tragedies, he said, paraphrasing Leonard Bernstein 52 years ago on the occasion of John F. Kennedy's assassination before he conducted part of Mahler's "Resurrection" symphony on television. Sunday's concert helped many to get a perspective on tragedy redeemed by the art of music.

Phillip Ayers sings with the Portland Bach Cantata Choir and for ten years sang with the Portland Symphonic Choir. From 2001-2007 he produced and hosted "Choral Classics" on All Classical radio. A retired Episcopal priest, he and his spouse are former church organists and choir directors and now enjoy "sitting in the pew" at church and concerts.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Northwest Art Song ito debut with Bach to Bernstein concert this Sunday

From the press release:

Familiar Portland Voices Launch First-of-Its-Kind Concert Series

Soprano Arwen Myers & mezzo-soprano Laura Beckel Thoreson are both very well-known to Portland audiences. Between them, they have sung with virtually every chamber group in town: Cappella Romana, In Mulieribus, The Ensemble, Musica Maestrale, Bach Cantata Choir, and Resonance Ensemble, to name a few. But now these musicians are launching an ensemble of their own to address the surprising lack of an entire repertoire of vocal chamber music in Portland and, indeed, the United States—that is, the art song repertoire.

So what is art song? Traditionally, art song is defined as vocal music composed specifically to be sung in recital, and it often refers to poetry set to music. Since this repertoire is often used as a tool by voice teachers, it is most frequently heard in the collegiate degree recital. “There’s this entire body of incredible music that is almost never performed in a professional context,” explains Myers. “We wanted to find a way to bring art song into the spotlight in a way that’s only being done in a few cities in the country, so we decided to start our own series to really get this music out there.”

Their plans come to fruition this month with the inaugural concert of Northwest Art Song, a new organization dedicated to promoting the art of the song recital. Myers & Thoreson, along with pianist Susan McDaniel, resident pianist for All Classical Portland’s live radio show Thursdays @ Three, will present a “duet extravaganza” spanning the full range of the recital repertoire. The performance will be followed by a launch party with local beer, wine, and snacks, and admission to the party is included in the concert ticket price.

“We hope that people will help us celebrate the beginning of this exciting new chapter in Portland vocal music,” says Thoreson. “We feel very strongly about personally connecting with our audiences. Music has the power to bring people together, and we can’t wait to begin to build a community around this wonderful repertoire.”

Northwest Art Song: Bach to Bernstein
Sunday, November 22 at 5:00 p.m.
Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Kempton Hall
147 NW 19th Ave. Portland, OR 97232
Tickets: $20 General / $10 Students / $5 Arts for All
Available at the door or in advance at

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

PYP celebrates 92nd season with Bates, Prokofiev, and Sibelius

The Portland Youth Philharmonic jump started the first concert of its season at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Saturday evening (November 14) with a program of firsts. First came Mason Bates’s techno-bleating “Warehouse Medicine,” followed by an exciting collaboration with teenage piano sensation Nathan Kim playing Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto, and then the orchestra, under music director David Hattner, wrapped things up by charging in to Sibelius’s First Symphony. All three pieces were performed with verve by the young musicians, who left it all on the floor.

Although Nathan Kim is only a sophomore at Newberg High School, his command of the keyboard - combining finesse, technical mastery and artistic bravado – was astonishing. Fearless attacks, pinpoint entries and exits, and the ability to caress the keys with genuine feeling made the Prokofiev a pure joy to hear. I heard him play this piece incredibly well with the Vancouver Symphony (WA) a few months ago, but now I have to say that he has really made it his own. The orchestra accompanied him marvelously, and Hattner did an exceptional job of keeping the orchestra from overpowering the soloist at even the loudest passages.

The pulsating techno beat of “Warehouse Medicine” (which is one movement from a piece called “The B-Sides”) buzzed with raspy energy to open the concert. It was complimented by wah-wahing brass and accented interjections from various sections of the orchestra until the pattern of the beat changed. After the pattern became faster and looser, and the strings responded with an interwoven texture. At one point, the beat died away and the orchestral colors took on a cinematic quality. After the techno pulse returned, it seemed to urge the orchestra into a grand finale.

Perhaps “Warehouse Medicine” was another form of call and response with the electronic component doing the call. Hattner singled out a young orchestra member, who was sitting with a laptop in the cello section with a laptop. He took care of the electronica, and perhaps the orchestra will need him again if it does all of the movements from “The B-Sides.”

The PYP, playing Sibelius’s First Symphony for the first time in its 92 year history, sounded terrific. The solemn opening statement by the clarinet (Talia Dugan) and timpani (Sam Doby) deceptively set the stage for the emotional waves of music that followed. Gorgeous playing by the strings created dark somber melodies before surging ahead with spring-like ones. Choirs of horns and woodwinds added wonderfully to the atmosphere. The musicians negotiated the fleet passages at the beginning of the fourth movement with panache and made the finale a glorious triumph. Hattner and company deserved the kudos from all corners of the hall for the fine performance, which was espeically appropriate on the sesquicentennial of Sibelius’s birth.

After the enthusiastic applause subsided a bit, the orchestral strings gave a lovely and touching performance of Sibelius’s “Andante Festivo” in honor of one of its violists, Binyamin Klatchko, who died just short of his 17th birthday a few months ago. That's a sad note upon which to close a concert, but it was a fitting one that showed the maturity of the musicians.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Friedhoffs' performance makes Beethoven's "Triple Concerto" a family affair at Vancouver Symphony concert

Mark, Jolán, and Isaac Friedhoff
It’s a very rare thing to hear Beethoven’s “Triple Concerto” featuring three members of the same family as the soloists, but that was the case at the Vancouver Symphony’s concert on Saturday afternoon (November 14) before a fairly full house at Skyview Concert Hall. Violinist Jolán Friedhoff, cellist Mark Friedhoff, and pianist Isaac Friedhoff gave a solid performance of that work before a large audience at the Skyview Concert Hall in Vancouver. Jólan and Mark are sister and brother who left Portland years ago to carve out their musical careers in Europe. While Jólan returned to the Sacramento area to play and teach, Mark continues to teach at two conservatories in Barcelona, Spain. In the meantime, Mark’s son Isaac is pursuing a doctorate in piano performance at USC.

In their performance of Beethoven’s “Triple Concerto,” the Friedhoff clan conveyed the sense of a convivial conversation. Phrases started by one soloist were passed seamlessly to the others, and sometimes they circulated around as a duet or a full-blown trio. When all three Friedhoffs were playing at the same time, it seemed that the cello got a little buried. The ensemble drew spontaneous applause after the rousing end of the first movement, and the cello solo at the beginning of the second movement had a beautiful cantabile quality. Overall, the trio created a light and amiable atmosphere, and their artistry, at times, had a luminosity that glowed.

In Barber’s “Second Essay for Orchestra,” which began the concert, the orchestra turned the opening statement into a bold theme. The woodwinds created a marvelous array of quick, bird-like sounds. The muscular fanfare towards the end of the piece featured excellent demonstrative brass and a robust ending. Principal timpanist Florian Conzetti weighed in well with some terrific blows, and the piece, overall gave a sense of assertive will-power.

With Music Director Salvador Brotons conducting from memory, the program closed with an uneven performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. The first movement got off to a good start with strong contributions by the woodwinds and horns, and the orchestra delved into dynamic contrasts that made the piece exciting, but the closing cut off was squeaky. The low strings sounded better than ever in the second movement, and upper strings played well yet suffered at times from intonation problems. The third movement reveled in the presto momentum but was marred by a missed entry by the normally reliable woodwinds. Urged on by Brotons, who clearly loves this music so much that he pounced forward on the podium and actually moved it, the orchestra dug in con brio and delivered a satisfyingly vigorous dance-like conclusion for the fourth movement.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Oregon Symphony concert travels from light to dark in program of Schiff, Rachmaninoff, and Tchaikovsky

Photo by Marco Borggreve
Shifting from light to dark, the Oregon Symphony presented a program that went from effervescence to broody at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Saturday evening (November 7). Beginning with David Schiff’s short and bubbly “Infernal,” the concert also featured a scintillating exploration of Rachmaninoff’s beloved “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” with guest artist Kirill Gerstein, and an incisive interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s “Manfred Symphony.”

Inspired by “The Infernal Dance of Kachei’s Subjects” from Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” Schiff’s “Infernal” covered a lot of the same territory with a six-minute scattershot-montage that was snappy and witty. While Niel DePonte at the drum set laid down a peppy rhythm, the orchestra quickly got into the swing of things with every section getting a chance to handle one or more of the familiar phrases. Principal trumpeter Jeffrey Work and principal trombonist Daniel Cloutier got in some terrific licks to top it all off. One wonders what Schiff, who teaches music at Reed College, would do with the rest of the “Firebird.”

Gerstein’s sparkling pianism was crystal clear in the Rachmaninoff, but some of the music seemed to rush by too fast. If he and  Kalmar could have taken a more relaxed tempo occasionally, then the piece would have had more warmth. Still, Gerstein’s impeccable performance glowed, and the audience rewarded him with a standing ovation that brought him back to the stage several times. He responded with a breathtaking “Etude for the Left Hand” by Felix Blumenfeld, a Russian composer who was a friend of Rachmaninoff. If you closed your eyes, you could have sword that he was using both hands, and he had such control that the some of the lower tones would linger a bit while a breeze of notes in the upper octaves would dance by.

According to the program notes, 24 years have passed since the orchestra last played the “Manfred Symphony.” Its length (almost an hour) and the moody construct of the piece have made it one of the least-played of Tchaikovsky’s symphonic works. But even a cursory search on the web shows that many orchestras in North America, such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Toronto Symphony, and the Chicago Symphony, have programmed it in recently*.

Inspired by Byron's dramatic semi-autobiographical poem “Manfred,” Tchaikovsky’s symphonic work reflects the tortured emotional state of the hero, who wanders the Alps, filled with remorse over an unnamed tragic event. After encounters with an otherworldly spirits and a descent into a subterranean bacchanal, the hero dies.

Under Kalmar’s baton, the music never became turgid, even when the heavily melancholic theme from the first movement returned in the fourth movement. Right from the start, the bassoons and lower strings created a forbidding atmosphere, and all of the strings weighed in heavily. Throbbing brass choirs and raised French horns, the soulful bass clarinet (Todd Kuhns), explosive percussion with bass drum, cymbals, gong, and timpani highlighted the rest of the first movement. The woodwinds invoked a fairy-like lightness and lovely playing by guest principal flutist Martha Long and guest principal clarinetist William Amsel graced the sweet melody established by the strings in the second movement. The third began with an exquisite solo by principal oboist Martin Hébert and was capped the by the hunting calls from principal hornist John Cox. The tempestuous fourth movement ranged all over the place, and after the music sank into the depths, the organ suggested a sense of redemption with a stately passage.

(* By searching for program notes for the “Manfred Symphony, I found that the LA Phil did it in 2012, Tronto in 2014, and Chicago in June of this year.)

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Young virtuoso Christopher Houlihan to perform on the Rosales Organ this Friday

Christopher Houlihan will play the Rosales Organ at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral this Friday (November 13) at 7 pm in a concert that is sponsored by the Portland Chapter of the American Guild of Organists (donations will be accepted). This concert is part of a lengthy tour that has taken Houlihan across the US in a zig zag fashion through 20 states and cities. He already has two recordings under his belt and a group of admirers called the Houlifans. Not bad for a fellow who is only 28 years old. I talked with him over the phone a week ago. Here is part of our conversation.

Will this be your first time in Portland?

Houlihan:  Yes, it will be my first time to perform there and to visit the city.

It’s wonderful that you’ll be playing the Rosales, which is considered by many to be the best organ in the Pacific Northwest.

Houlihan:  For years, I have heard the Rosales Organ on recordings, and now I am really looking forward to playing it. It’s a very famous instrument and has a great reputation. I think that it will be a really good fit for the music that I’ll play in the concert.

I assume that you play piano as well as organ. How did you get attracted to the organ?

Houlihan:  I guess that happened when I was eleven. I had already been taking piano lessons for a few years, but I saw an organ in a church for the first time and was mesmerized by the sight and sound of it. I got hooked. I just caught the bug and eventually found an organ teacher and have been playing organ ever since.

At age eleven, did your feet touch the pedals?

Houlihan:  Yes. I was a tall kid!

Do you tour often?

Houlihan:  I give between 20 and 30 recitals a year. I have to get to the venue a day or two in advance and set up the music so that it will work on that organ, and get familiar with that organ. It’s kind of like being a conductor and coming in to work with a new ensemble. You have to re-rehearse all of these pieces that you already know but get them to work in this new situation, because every organ is so different from the next.

What do you do besides touring?

Houlihan:  Although touring is my primary thing, I am artist-in-residence at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. I am also an organist at Church of the Holy Apostles Church in downtown New York City. They give me a lot of flexibility to travel and perform.

The program that you’ll be playing on the Rosales includes the Prelude and Fugue in B-flat Major by Henry Martin.

Houlihan:  Henry Martin is a composer in New York who was commissioned by Michael Barone, who is the host of American Public Media’s Pipedreams, to write 24 new preludes and fugues for the organ. This is one of two that have been entrusted to me to premiere. I’ve been playing this one since this past summer. It’s a very cool piece – very American with a mix of styles with a little Gershwin and a little Marcel Dupré the French organ virtuoso.

You’ll also play the Fourth Symphony of Louis Vierne.

Houlihan:  Vierne was the blind French organist of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. He had congential cataracts; so he could see a little bit. He would write his music on enlarged staff paper with a pencil and magnifying glasses. As his eyesight became worse, he had someone else write the notes for him.

He wrote six symphonies for solo organ. Vierne’s Fourth Symphony is really an exciting piece. It’s very personal, and because his life was so tragic, a lot of that comes through. It has big contrasts of angst, depression, and frustration mixed in with a beautiful romance movement that has a gorgeous melody and a charming minuet. It’s a colorful, wild piece that will sound great on the Rosales organ.

Of course, you have to play some Bach. You’ll perform Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E minor.

Houlihan:  This is one of Bach’s more epic preludes and fugues. It is sometimes called “The Wedge” because of the fugue that starts on one note and splits out chromatically to an octave. So it’s like a wedge, starting in one place and then splits in half. Plus, it is like a fugue on steroids, because the fugue turns into a toccata fantasia. It’s a wild, enormous piece – totally Bach showing off everything that he could do.

The concert will begin with the Fantasy in E flat by Camille Saint-Saëns.

Houlihan:  It's a  fun, early Saint-Saëns piece that is an exciting and catchy way to begin the evening.

Do you have a photographic memory?

Houlihan:  No. I don’t have a photographic memory. It takes me a long time to memorize pieces. But it’s worth the effort for this beautiful music.

Do you live in a house with five organs that you get to experiment with?

Houlihan:  I wish that I did! I live in an apartment in Brooklyn. I practice at Holy Apostles in Manhattan and a couple of other places that let me use their organ. It’s tough to have a pipe organ in your apartment!

Do you have a new recording?

Houlihan:  I’ve got a Bach recording that is waiting to be released.

The organ is such a great instrument. It is great to know about the new preludes and fugues by Martin, but what is the situation of new compositions for organ?

Houlihan:  Composers are getting excited about it again. They can really explore a new frontier of sound. At Juilliard, a lot of the organists are working with composers in the composition department. They are writing a lot of new organ pieces.

The trickiest thing about writing for organ is that no two organs are the same, and that’s scary for a composer. You have to give the organist a bit of freedom to decide the colors and sounds.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Salem Chamber Orchestra moves toward Chapter 7 Bankruptcy

Yesterday's Statesman Journal reported that the Salem Chamber Orchestra will file for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy because the organization is too far in debt to survive financially. This is sad news for Oregon. The SCO has been giving concerts for 31 years, and they had an planned an excellent season.