IT’S EASY TO lament the prominence of “pops” in this year’s Oregon Symphony calendar—nights dedicated to music from Pokémon, Frozen, and Raiders of the Lost Ark sit alongside usual hoary suspects like Beethoven and Mozart. But it’s a continuation of a strategy that’s getting music-loving butts in seats: The Oregon Symphony recently reported that the 2015/16 season was among their best ever, with revenue records broken and the organization’s finances firmly in the black.
So let’s be grateful for one-off nights like The Music of David Bowie, Orchestrated for People Who Don’t Like David Bowie (September 29) and George Constanza Sings Fuckin’ Show Tunes (October 15 & 16), because those fill the coffers in order to pay for the real meat of the Symphony’s season, which this year showcases a truly impressive slate of lesser-known pieces from history’s best composers. It all kicks off this week with a terrific free concert on the Portland waterfront; the regular-season concerts listed below take place at the Symphony’s longtime home, the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall (1037 SW Broadway).
Soprano Renée Fleming is a musical superstar, one of a handful of today’s opera singers known to a wider audience. Having her at the Oregon Symphony’s first indoor concert of the year is quite a coup, and Fleming will be demonstrating her stylistic range with Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs, alongside tunes from Massenet, Saint-Saëns, and The King and I.
Bartók: Bluebeard’s Castle
This is more than a run-through of Béla Bartók’s one-act opera Bluebeard’s Castle. The performance, which features bass Gábor Bretz and mezzo soprano Viktoria Vizin in the opera’s two sung roles, will be set against a backdrop by Pacific Northwest glass sculptor Dale Chihuly, providing a surreal counterpart to Bartók’s disquieting dissonance. The program also includes Mozart’s “Paris” symphony and the world premiere of Among Mountains, an orchestral piece specially commissioned by the Oregon Symphony from up-and-coming American composer Chris Rogerson.
Marc-André Hamelin Plays Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3
Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin visits the Schnitz for what’s sure to be an aerobic dust-off of the Rach 3, a tremendous and tricky-to-play piano concerto that’s woozily, romantically grand. A snippet from Wagner’s Siegfried kicks off the night, and the Oregon Symphony also has Sibelius’ Symphony No. 3 on hand, a relatively pared-down work from the Finnish composer that will provide a lively counterpart to Rachmaninoff’s lush drama.
Move over, violin scratchers and piano mashers—a percussion soloist is leading the charge for this weekend’s concerts. Scotland’s Colin Currie, one of the globe’s premiere percussionists, will bang on all types of things during a performance of one of his signature pieces, “Switch,” a percussion concerto by contemporary composer Andrew Norman. You’ll also hear the Symphony gallivant its way through Richard Strauss’ jaunty, expansive tone poem Ein Heldenleben, which frames the composer in a series of ostensibly “heroic” situations.
Music for Halloween
A special program for the spookiest weekend of the year kicks off with the Prelude from Czech composer Leoš Janácek's opera From the House of the Dead (based on the book by Dostoevsky), followed by Sergei Prokofiev’s terrifying Symphony No. 3, which features reworked music from his orgiastic opera setting of Bryusov’s The Fiery Angel. Violinist Joseph Swensen provides calm in the storm with the caress of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto before the frights come back with Bach’s thunderous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, in the well-known orchestration by legendary conductor Leopold Stokowski.
Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony
Guest conductor Hans Graf will take the podium for what’s probably the biggest “hit” of the Oregon Symphony’s fall season—Beethoven’s Sixth, the lovely and lyrical “Pastoral” symphony. It’s tough to hear the piece’s loping theme without getting bucolic visions of meadows and streams in your head, and hearing the simulated thunderstorm of the fourth movement live and in person should be a sensory experience not easily forgotten. Also on this bill: Robert Schumann’s not-quite-a-symphony “Overture, Scherzo, and Finale” and Swiss composer Frank Martin’s Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments, which I haven’t heard but I assume is better than my annoying neighbor’s Concerto for Seven Wind Chimes.
Four French Pieces
Seattle Symphony’s Ludovic Morlot picks up the baton for this weekend’s concerts, which spotlight a quartet of outstanding French composers, starting with an instrumental excerpt from Claude Debussy’s cantata L’enfant prodigue. The program continues with Ernest Chausson’s winning, dreamy Symphony in B-flat (the only one he ever composed); then guest pianist Stephen Hough takes on Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 5 (also known as “Egyptian”). The evening concludes with Maurice Ravel’s orchestral poem La valse, which dissects and expands the famous Viennese waltz form.