Oregon Symphony, Hannu Lintu and Horatio Gutierrez

On Monday night, I had the privilege of scoring free tickets to the Oregon Symphony. I had been wanting to go that weekend, mostly to hear Rachmaninov’s sublime Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, and when the offer came up, I jumped at it.

Interior of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall
Interior of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall

It was my first time at the beautiful Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, an Art Deco monstrosity (and I use that term with the utmost affection) that reminded me strongly of the theater that I will always associate with orchestral music, the Alex Theater in Glendale, CA (home of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra). I had orchestra level seats, and the view of the ceiling was breathtaking.
The program started off with Mozart’s Symphony No. 36. The orchestra was tight and had a great sound (although from my seat, it would have been impossible for me not to hear the full sound of the orchestra) and although in general I can never find anything to differentiate one Mozart orchestral piece from another, it did give me time to observe the style of the guest conductor, Hannu Lintu of Finland.
Lintu is a virtual caricature of a conductor, tall and thin with the body type that tuxedos with tails are made for. I don’t know how useful he was for keeping the beat , but he was certainly entertaining, and clear enough in his gestures that only the blind wouldn’t pick up on the effects that he was trying to achieve.  He jumped about, throwing his hands in the air when he wanted a big statement, shaking like an overcaffinated David Byrne when he wanted clear stacatto notes. In the Mozart, the orchestra was hanging on his every gesture, and you could almost see the connection between the orchestra and the conductor.
Unfortunately, that connection was nonexistent between the soloist and the conductor during the Rhapsody. Horatio Gutierrez was the piano soloist, and he played clearly and with the seemingly effortless grace and fluidity that only comes with practice and mastery. Gutierrez, at least physically, is the complete opposite of Lindu. He is an enormous man, which made it all the more astonishing to me that he played with such ease. All of the rapid scalar and chordal passages were flawless and clear, but the piece was plagued by tempo problems. A few times the soloist got so much faster than the orchestra that the conductor actually had to turn to him and make a desperate, “There are other people playing, you know” face. Things finally got together enough that the famous Variation 18 was executed flawlessly. I am not the first person to say this, but it is truly amazing that by simply inverting a fraction of the original melody by Paganini, Rachmaninov creates a passage that seems as though it is his own creation. In other words, I could play a recording of that variation and say to someone, “That. That is what Rachmaninov sounds like.”
Hannu Lintu
Hannu Lintu

On the other hand, even after seeing it live, I could not tell you what Magnus Lindberg’s Feria sounds like. The conductor prefaced the piece in heavily accented English, “You see, we have a deal tonight. You listen to 13 minutes of modern Finnish music and then we play for you the Bolero.”   Feria is a Spanish word meaning (obviously) an open air fair or carnival. All I can say is I don’t know what kind of carnivals Lindberg has been to, but by the sound of the music, it would be the scariest carnival ever. This type of modern composition always provokes in me an intense feeling of inferiority. I really don’t posses the knowledge or the experience to tell whether it is any good or not. There were parts that were flashy; the composer made full use of an expanded percussion section to make broad dramatic gestures. But I really don’t know what I thought of it. Tangentially, it did provide one of the most entertaining moments of the concert. At one point, the score called for a muted tuba. I got a kick out of seeing the tuba player pull out an enormous mute. It was about the size and rough shape of a motorcycle gasoline tank.
Finally, in the words of the conductor (and I really wish I could convey his accent and slightly sarcastic cadence), the Bolero. It takes balls to write an orchestral piece (in C no less!) that has an unchanging rhythm and one melody. And even though we have heard the melody played over and over by the time we get to it, the full orchestra playing fortissimo at the end is genuinely thrilling. On the other hand, it does feel a little like brainwashing by the final notes.
I was hoping for a little better Rachmaninov, especially considering that it was the third night, but the Oregon Symphony has a standing deal on student tickets, and I look forward to returning many times to the Schnitz.

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