PORTLAND, OR -- With one of the country's most robust live music scenes, one could forgive Portland for slacking a bit when it comes to the orchestral arts. In fact, Portland is home to the West Coast's oldest orchestra: the Oregon Symphony, founded in 1896 as the Portland Symphony Society. (They officially changed their name in 1967 to reflect the increasing number of concerts they gave around the state.)
The Oregon Symphony first gained wide exposure under music director James DePriest, who led the symphony for more than two decades and elevated their playing to a professional level. DePriest was succeeded in 2003 by the Uruguayan-born Austrian conductor Carlos Kalmar, who has succeeded in putting his own electrifying stamp on the orchestra. In 2011, he and the symphony made a huge splash when they stormed Carnegie's inaugural Spring for Music festival with a program entitled "Music in a Time of War," which Alex Ross and others called the "the most gripping event of the season."
I had the chance to hear the Oregon Symphony earlier this month at their home in the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, a former movie palace in downtown Portland with a huge Hollywood-style marquis out front. Portland is not unique in this regard—the symphony orchestras of Indianapolis, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh, among others, all play in one-time movie palaces—but while their ornate interiors may be easy on the eye and the cost of converting them into performance spaces far lower than starting from scratch, no amount of acoustic patchwork can make these enormous theaters reverberate like traditional concert halls.
Still, it was hard not to be impressed seeing the 2,700-seat hall filled to near-capacity on a Monday night for a program of Schubert and Mahler. In pre-concert remarks, Kalmar explained the somewhat unusual pairing: "Schubert was the Austrian master of the short form, just as Mahler was the undisputed master of the long form."
For me, Rosamunde—which Schubert wrote for a now-forgotten play—was an odd opener. The overture was bright and cheerful; the "Ballet II" was dark and strange. The orchestra played with warmth and clean phrasing, if lacking the snap and crackle of the truly great bands. But, it was a big chunk of music that did little more than distract from the main event.
Which, in this case, was Mahler's Sixth Symphony—an orchestral work of gargantuan proportions and a heart of darkness. This is music square in Kalmar's wheelhouse: bold, dramatic, even militaristic. What the performance lacked in subtlety and precision it more than made up for in passion, especially in the drawn-out emotion of the Andante and the Scherzo's relentless ferocity.
Everything comes crashing down in the half-hour-long Finale, courtesy of three massive hammer blows that still have the power to shock, more than a century after the work's premiere. Critics (spurred on by Mahler's widow, Alma) like to ascribe these hammer blows to a series of premonitions Mahler had about his life, but you really don't need a guidebook to understand what Mahler's getting after here. For me, the desperate, pleading music had an even greater resonance, having been an eyewitness to Sandy's destructive powers less than a week earlier. When the music finally died out, the entire audience stood en masse to applaud Kalmar and his players. Rightfully so.
The Oregon Symphony was supposed to return to Carnegie this May for the third-annual Spring For Music festival, but sadly had to cancel due to budget cuts. Fortunately, the Detroit Symphony has agreed to perform selections from their planned program, including Weill's Seven Deadly Sins (with Pink Martini's Storm Large), but this is as much a loss for New Yorkers as it is them. Hopefully next year.