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In Oregon Symphony Visit, Seattle Hears What It’s Been Missing

May 6, 2013

by Philippa Kiraly

As conductor Carlos Kalmar commented from the stage of Benaroya Hall, it had taken 117 years for the Oregon Symphony to make its way to Seattle, but here they were (Seattle Symphony will pay a return visit next season). Seattle has really been missing out, given the caliber of Friday night’s performance and the content of the program presented.

It began with Phenomenon—The Mysterious and Unexplained, from 2004 by Thai composer Narong Prangcharoen, which began with loud bangs and the whole orchestra playing fast and furious in organized cacophony with lots of percussion, then dropping suddenly to slow whispers like the wind whistling through trees.

The program notes described it as crowds arriving for a national Buddhist festival in which fireballs mysteriously ascend into the sky and never descend—rather like July 4th fireworks. The sound and fury rise again in the music, and at the end—it’s quite short—we get the papery whisper of what we imagine to be the burned-out leftover residue floating to earth. The piece is thrilling and had audience members holding their collective breath.

The orchestra followed with another work not often heard on a concert stage, Kurt Weill’s and Berthold Brecht’s The Seven Deadly Sins, with the incomparable crossover singer Storm Large, soprano, as the two sides of protagonist Anna, and tenors Jorge Garza and Carl Moe, baritone Anton Belov and bass-baritone Richard Zeller as the Family.

It was originally a very odd ballet, and probably works better in concert. Here we had Anna, in a drab coat over a long dress, with a high stool and small table on one side of the conductor and, on the other, the four men in order of ascending height and size from a small thin tenor to the large, tall bass-baritone, the first with a black homburg, two in the midst with caps and the last with a preposterous flowered hat. (Anna gets a wine bottle and wine glass to drink from: the others just get water bottles.)

The story is that the young Anna sets forth from Louisiana to make her fortune (and incidentally that of her family back home). As she goes from city to city she encounters the seven deadly sins: Sloth, Pride, Anger, Gluttony, Lust, Covetousness and Envy, and in each city she discovers that being a good girl doesn’t pay, that accepting the more dubious path brings her money, but not happiness. Throughout, the Family comnments.

Storm Large, soprano

The music is pure Weill, The Threepenny Opera on steroids. Large, who used a microphone but never so that its use became audibly obvious, is not only a fine and expressive singer but a fine actress, sliding off her coat in the Pride section to reveal a slinky white satin gown in which she becomes a seductive siren, exasperating her family, showing her feelings—whichever Anna she was—by the set of her shoulders or stance.

The four male singers acted equally well by means of small gestures, and all five singers made the words clear. Kalmar meanwhile kept the orchestra just under them for audibility, but brought out the senuous waltz, the agitation of the family in Anger, all very 1930s in a lively, colorful performance.

The first half by itself would have sent this audience member home happy, but after intermission, Kalmar conducted a nuanced and expressive, a very musical performance of Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, the “Unfinished.” Nothing was overstated, but Kalmar brought out its inherent drama without making a meal of it. The orchestra sounded well balanced, so that one could hear inner voices, and it was well together, except for a couple of times when the timpanist seemed a hair in front of the beat (which might have been due to the unfamiliar acoustics of the hall).

Without a pause, Kalmar launched straight into Ravel’s La Valse. Beforehand, he explained that the Schubert represented Vienna at the end of the elegant classical age, just moving into the romantic, while the Ravel showed the end of it with Vienna’s descent into horrors and destruction of World War I. Ravel began La Valse in 1906, but he finished it in 1920, after working as an ambulance driver in that most slaughterful of wars.

This was abundantly clear in the music, Kalmar and the orchestra did it proud, from the danceable start to the menacing change in tone, then to the chaos at the end. This is a conductor it would be a pleasure to hear from again. He conducts with dynamism, his whole body mirroring the feelings in the music. His beat is clear even when it seems wild, and he’s almost a podium dancer, but with intent.

Let’s hope he and the Oregon Symphony are invited back soon.