Last Wednesday, the Oregon Symphony announced the calendar of concerts that will comprise their 2023-24 season. The information came at a curious time. Just days before, the Portland Business Journal published a story outlining the post-pandemic struggles the symphony faces. Rent hikes and additional performance fees have cut into their budget, forcing December layoffs of 10 percent of their administrative staff and the cancellation of both their live streaming programs and their free Waterfront Concert, which drew over 7,000 people last summer.
“Right now, we’re muscling through,” Oregon Symphony’s President and CEO Scott Showalter told the Mercury. “But we’re going to need to continue to have the help from state and federal funds as we recover. It’s going to be a multi-year recovery process. We’re still planning for a bright future. We’ve just got to get people back down to the concert hall.”
The good news is: The program of concerts that the orchestra has planned for the end of this year and the beginning of 2024 certainly looks enticing enough to make that happen.
The season opens on September 10 with a one-night only appearance by Yo-Yo Ma, the cellist that is, without question, the most recognized classical musician in the world. From there, the schedule is an alluring mix of works from the established canon and an array of modern pieces. The concerts scheduled for February 10-12, 2024, for example, pair Beethoven’s instantly familiar Fifth Symphony with composer Timo Andreas' Blind Bannister, which is a modern homage to Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-Flat Major. In April of 2024, the orchestra brings out Mozart’s always stirring Requiem alongside Darker America, a work from the late Black composer William Grant Still that stirs elements of jazz and gospel into the mix.
Other highlights tucked into the 2023-24 calendar include violinist Carolin Widmann performing Toru Takemitsu’s Far Calls, Coming, Far!, a work of staggering beauty and dissonance (May 18 - 20, 2024); Benjamin Britten’s shattering Violin Concerto (April 27 - 29, 2024); and pianist Tamara Stefanovich tackling Hans Abrahamsen’s Left, Alone (January 27 - 29, 2024), a percussive concerto that requires the soloist to only use their left hand. For the full 2023-24 schedule, click here.
The deeper challenge that the Oregon Symphony continues to face is how to get the old guard donors and subscribers to embrace these more modern works, so lovingly chosen by music director David Danzmayr and his right-hand man, vice president for programming Clement So.
When Yo-Yo Ma’s face popped up on the screen during Showalter’s PowerPoint presentation on Wednesday, the attendees of the event erupted in gasps and paroxysms of joy. But the response to the symphony’s ongoing work with living composers and musicians like their artists-in-residence Simone Lamsma and Xavier Foley was muted at best. At worst was the older woman seated in front of us who reacted to the news of a new commission by Composer-in-Residence Andy Akiho based on the work of Japanese-American artist Jun Kaneko (to be performed on November 4 - 6 of this year) by leaning over to her husband and stage-whispering, “Yecch.”
What will surely help the Oregon Symphony weather these rough waters are their crowd pleasing Pops series, Popcorn series, and Music For Families. Famed composer John Williams is well-represented with the orchestra performing selections from his movie scores on November 25 & 26, 2023—along with some of the films he has worked on, like Raiders of the Lost Ark (September 23 & 24, 2023) and Jurassic Park (February 24 & 25, 2024). An array of familiar faces will join the symphony throughout the next season like Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth (December 14, 2023), and local heroes Pink Martini (December 20 & 21, 2023), and Storm Large (March 16 and 17, 2024).
It all adds up to another exciting run of concerts for an organization that has been given a fresh jolt of energy thanks to the arrival of Danzmayr, the young Austrian who came on board to lead the orchestra in 2021.
“He’s been a breath of fresh air,” Showalter says, “especially as we come out of COVID. Last year, we celebrated our 125th anniversary, so to bring a youthfulness and a vitality, both in terms of programming as well as his conducting style has been informative. Not only for the orchestra, who are really enjoying working with him, but also for the audience.
“And then we’ve got the new acoustic system within the hall as well. So for both the excellence and the talents of the musicians and the superior conducting abilities of those that we bring on the podium combined with the acoustics, that live experience has never been better.”