Portland Symphony Orchestra
Sept. 26, 2017
by Christopher Hyde
The first concert of the Portland Symphony Orchestra season at Merrill Auditorium began with an orchestral version of “The Star Spangled Banner,” a tribute, as music director Robert Moody observed, to all of those afflicted by climate disasters in the U.S. and its Caribbean territories.
The arrangement was followed appropriately by a rhythmic and well-executed “Danzón No. 2 (1994) by contemporary Mexican composer Arturo Márquez. I had heard this work before, played by an orchestra stemming from the Venezuelan program “El sistema,” and the Northern version seemed just as authentic and exciting. Enjoyable fluff, with enough contrasts in texture to make it interesting.
It is impossible to write a concerto for organ and orchestra, but German composer Hans-Andre Stamm gave it a try in 1998, basing the three movements on portions of the 23rd Psalm.
“Impossible” because when the organ is loud enough to hear, it drowns out the orchestra, and vice versa. The sounds of the instrument and and those of individual sections of the band are too similar to provide much contrast, and in a battle for dominance the Kotzschmar will always win.
Both the orchestra and organist James Jones gave it the best possible performance, with some of the tranquil passages —“He leadeth me beside still waters”—miraculously well balanced.
The style of the work, a tonal combination of neo-Romantic and church music, did not help to overcome the sonic difficulties, and it was hard to understand how the concluding middle Eastern dance music fitted into the scheme of the psalm.
The organ does have its uses in a symphony orchestra, as proved by the tremendous conclusion of the Mussorgsky/Ravel “Pictures at an Exhibition:’ “The Great Gate of Kiev.” When I play it on the piano I always wish for a larger Steinway, or maybe a Bosendorfer, but Moody had an ace in the hole with the Kotzschmar. Just when you think the ultimate in sonority has been reached, in comes an organ pipe and moves the earth.
At the time of writing, I have been unable to discover whether the Ravel transcription includes the organ or whether it was borrowed from Stokowski’s later, more “Slavic” version. Whatever the case, it belongs there.
The other “pictures” were equally well rendered, conjuring up images like no other music, from the groaning of an ox cart to the surreal “Hut on Hen’s Legs” and its brilliant percussion. In “With the Dead in the Tongue of the Dead,” the skulls begin to glow..
At the conclusion, the standing ovation was so long that Moody left the stage and allowed the orchestra members to receive it all by themselves.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.