Common Threads in Disparate Elements

United StatesUnited States Prangcharoen, Weill, Schubert, and Ravel: Storm Large (soprano), Jorge Garza and Carl Moe (tenors), Anton Belov (baritone), Richard Zeller (bass-baritone), Oregon Symphony, Carlos Kalmar (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 3.5.2013 (BJ)

Prangcharoen: Phenomenon–The Mysterious and Unexplained
Weill: The Seven Deadly Sins
Schubert: Symphony No. 8 in B minor, “Unfinished”
Ravel: La Valse

The device of conjoining works that had no previous acquaintance with each other seems to be gaining currency. One pioneer of the practice, some years ago, was Erich Leinsdorf, who had the notion of segue-ing directly from Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw into Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. More recently, Simon Rattle used the same Schoenberg piece as a lead-in to Mahler’s Second. In recent Seattle seasons, Gerard Schwarz has made a great effect by following Mozart’s Requiem directly with the same composer’s Ave verum corpus: the combination ensures that the evening ends on a high artistic note, because for all its superb passages the Requiem—I confess to feeling—does not rank among the greatest Mozart, whereas the Ave verum corpus, for all its brevity, surely does.

Bringing his Oregon Symphony for the first time, Carlos Kalmar offered a cross-fertilization along analogous lines, in this case linking works that might on the face of it seem to have little in common. But when you come to think of it, applauding after the second movement of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony always feels a bit strange, precisely because that magical Andante con moto so clearly isn’t the ending of anything. And La Valse, though written by a French composer, is spiritually set in the same Viennese milieu that Schubert breathed. Indeed, the dramatic effect of the conjunction was both illuminating and moving, since what Ravel does in this, perhaps his single greatest work, is to destroy metaphorically the world of the Viennese waltz.

Putting La Valse at the end of a program can, indeed, be something of a downer, but in this juxtaposition it served to tell us something important about both works. The impact was heightened by the beautifully nuanced performances Kalmar drew from his excellent orchestra, which is exceptionally even in quality throughout all its sections. Especially rewarding, in these days when conductors tend to regard a tempo once set as something to be maintained unvaried within a given movement, was Kalmar’s willingness to bend the pulse as expression demanded—when Schubert, the absence of specific instructions in the score notwithstanding, got a move on, so did Kalmar. And in the Ravel, his percussion section outdid itself with its vivid punctuation of the nihilistic conclusion.

The evening had begun with a sufficiently brilliant and dramatic account of Phenomenon, a colorful, descriptive piece by Narong Prangcharoen, who was born in Thailand in 1973 and now lives in Kansas City. Accurately described in Steven Kruger’s program note as essentially “mainstream, international symphonic music, albeit pictorial,” it revealed an assured hand at orchestration, and a confident idiom partaking of both modern and post-modern elements, though not perhaps as yet a particularly strong personal voice.

The performance of Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins that followed was less successful than the admirably idiomatic one I heard Kalmar conduct in Philadelphia some years ago. The fault, however, seemed to lie rather with the sound system that was being used, somewhat ineffectively, to mike the contributions of Storm Large and the other singers, so it would be unfair to say any more about their work. In any case, momentary dissatisfaction was soon forgotten under the impact of the concert’s splendid second half.

Bernard Jacobson