Oregon Symphony: Theofanidis, Beethoven, Sibelius

James DePriest
James DePriest

So, I may be posting a little this week to procrastinate, but I wouldn’t really expect regular updates for another couple of weeks. It’s the end of the year, and there is a whole lot of crazy going around. I did have enough time, however, to go to hear the Oregon Symphony on Sunday night conducted by conductor laureate James DePriest. DePriest conducted from a wheelchair (I couldn’t find the story on that anywhere online, but he is 72) and it was clear that the audience had affection for the man who led the orchestra for 23 years as they went nuts every time there was an opportunity for applause (You know how there are always old ladies who bolt for the door as soon as the last note sounds (I think they want to get out of the parking lot first)? The final curtain call was so long that they were able to get all the way out of the hall before the rest of the audience started leaving.).
Christopher Theofanidis
Christopher Theofanidis

The program opened with Christopher Theofanidis’ Rainbow Body. Although the president of the Oregon Symphony has admitted that, in an effort to raise ticket sales, the orchestra has tried to program mostly warhorse classics and take it easy on the modern music, this was the piece that I emptied my bank account to go hear. If I might take a moment, if you are a student in the Portland metro area, there is no reason for you to skip any of these concerts. The Oregon Symphony has a standing, $10 student tickets an hour before showtime, deal. That’s less than a trip to the movies. You should go. Anyway, Rainbow Body, as explained in the lecture before the concert, is a work inspired by the Buddhist concept that when our bodies die we all return to the universe in the form of energy and light (I am sure that I am not geting that quite right, and the Wikipedia article on it is not exactly helpful). The piece incorporates melody from chants composed by Hildegard von Bingen, the 12th Century German abbess polymath. I didn’t really hear the chant; it was a little deconstructed and I wasn’t familiar with it in its original form anyway. What did strike me is the amazing color that Theofanidis writes into the music. One technique that I really liked is his use of cluster chords, where (for example) the string section plays a line of music, but on every note, there are a few musicians that hold on a little longer. Think of a piano; it is like playing a scale with the pedal down, and while you still hear the scale, you also hear every note interacting with the notes that came before. Or think of beads of paint on a canvas, it is like taking your finger and smearing the colors together. It was really lovely.
I guess the thing that sticks with me most about the piece is the way that it is able to synthesize musical tradition into something that is both beautiful and reverent of the past, while being firmly rooted in our time. The piece was tonal, and there were moments of throwback technique: for a brief passage the woodwinds broke into counterpoint that could have come from an 19th century textbook. And yet the harmonies had a dissonant edge (most notably in the brass) that could only have come from a composer that had studies 20th century music. Some of the sonorites and textures could have also come from experimental or ambient pop music. In this respect he reminded me of Eric Whitacre, who I first encountered via Chanticleer. They assimilate material from many different strains of music without being cheap and also without the millitant idealism of some 2oth century schools of composing. Two final notes about Christopher Theofanidis: 1. His name is really fun to pronounce. 2. He looks like John Ritter.
Garrick Ohlsson
Garrick Ohlsson

Next was Garrick Ohlsson, a close friend of DePriest (a fact which I heard repeated no less than five times), to play Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4. I don’t really have a lot to say about the piece itself, but I will say that I was really impressed with Ohlsson’s technique. I know that it is the least I could say, but I was genuinely enthralled by his tone. He managed to both play clearly and with great passion.
The other highlight of the evening was Ohlsson’s encore: Chopin’s Nocturnes Op. 9 No.2. We would all like to believe that every member of the audience is concentrating all the time on the music, but we know that’s not true. Nevertheless, when Ohlssohn began to play, you could almost hear everybody fix their attention on the piano. Nobody coughed. Nobody’s watch went off. We just listened. You almost never see it, even in concertos with solo passages, but you could also see the entire orchestra just listening. DePriest listened from his chair with his eyes closed. The adorable viola player that looks like he could have been the crypt keeper’s college roommate swayed with the music.
It is a thing that I occassionaly marvel at. In one sense, the stage, the sound of music is completely relative. In that moment with everybody listening, the piano was filling the hall as much as the full orchestra could. When the last note faded away, the audience hesitated, not wanting to break the silence.
Finally, Sibelius’ Symphony No. 1. After reading The Rest is Noise earlier this year, I went out and got all of the Sibelius Symphonies and downloaded all of the scores from the International Music Scores Library Project (which is a fantastic resource). So, lately I’ve been feeling a little chummy with the guy. One thing that I was particularly struck by was a beautiful passage where the timpani was sustaining a soft roll while the harp played a solo. Something about the tension between the sound at the low and high extremes of frequencies made an impression on me. Actually, the timpani is one of my favorite features of Sibelius’ orchestral music. Often it is used not as a percussive accent, but as a subsonic drone, like a roar that is just out of earshot and only the lowest freqencies carry through the distance.
One last note: the Oregon Symphony and the members of the section should be very proud of the brass section. On all three of the pieces, but mostly in the Theodfanidis, I was struck at how tight they sounded.

One response to “Oregon Symphony: Theofanidis, Beethoven, Sibelius”

  1. Hello:
    An article about the “Motorized Wheel Chair,” “Motorized Chair is James DePreist’s New Way to Get Around.” The Oregonian, 3 April 2004. There may be others, but this article was in my opinion, very good and informative.

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