Setting the schedule for a symphony orchestra is a unique challenge. The easiest way to sell tickets and fill seats in the concert hall is to bring in virtuosos from around the world for a turn in the spotlight, and to program major works that are guaranteed crowd pleasers. But no classical ensemble can survive on a diet of Beethoven’s Ninth or Mahler’s Fifth alone—especially not while there’s hundreds of years’ worth of compositions to choose from, and vital new work being written.
Under the leadership of music director Carlos Kalmar, the Oregon Symphony has done a better job than most orchestras in maintaining a balance of greatest hits with deep cuts from beyond the classical canon. And the last few months of their 2017-18 season are no exception, as they pair popular delights like
Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major (March 17-19) and an appearance by violinist Joshua Bell with some impressive lesser-known pieces and fresh musical creations.
Setting the table for that Brahms concerto, performed by Israeli violinist Vadim Gluzman, will be Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 4. Subtitled “Requiem,” this composition from 1943 is a worthy companion piece to Verdi’s own Requiem, which the Symphony will perform the week prior. The themes of the two pieces are similar—a musical farewell to a beloved figure—but that’s where the connections end. Hanson’s symphony, which earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1944, is less grandiose. Outside of a peppy third movement, the music is more romantic, with string and horn melodies billowing forth like cumulus clouds on the move.
The unknowns on the schedule this spring are two commissioned pieces that are having their world premieres with the Symphony. The details on each are scant, but knowing the previous work of the composers might offer some clarity on what to expect. Andy Akiho is a percussionist by trade, so his compositions are entirely rhythm-based. Even his piano quartet, “The War Below,” pulsates and clangs, thanks to its call for objects to be placed on the strings of the instrument. Akiho’s concerto (April 7-9) will surely make great use of Colin Currie, the Scottish percussionist slated to appear with the symphony.
What Gabriel Kahane (May 12-14) has in store for folks is a little harder to predict. His musical weapon of choice is the piano, which he uses primarily as the foundation for his work as a singer/songwriter, but he’s recently written some impressive classical pieces for the instrument. The two sides of his musical life are connected by a romanticism that sweeps through each piece with languid movements. One fascinating hint as to what Kahane’s got in store for the Symphony is that his work will, in part, be performed by Measha Brueggergosman, a soprano vocalist from Canada, who can be soulful or operatic as needed. All indications are that you should prepare to swoon.
Of all the below-the-radar work that the Oregon Symphony have planned for the end of their current season, the most unanticipated choice is that of Ernst Krenek’s Potpourri, Op. 54 (April 21-23).
Krenek was a thoroughly modern composer in his time, who closed out the end of his life dabbling in electronic music and won acclaim in his native Austria for the jazz-inspired opera Jonny Spielt Auf. There are shades of Gershwin-esque swing in the short piece Potpourri as well, but it’s matched up with passages that are far more stiff-necked and almost militaristic in tone. Like all the works sprinkled throughout these last few events from the Oregon Symphony, it will be a distinct pleasure to hear them played with the vitality and perception that this ensemble brings to everything they put their hands to.