Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Sounds in the Northwest

The Pacific Northwest is an area of contrasts. From lush evergreen forests and an annual rainfall of well over 100 inches in some coastal mountain slopes we can travel to desert areas receiving less than 10 inches annually. Temperatures are mild year round in Oregon's Banana Belt around Brookings, but it gets almost as hot as Phoenix, Arizona, during the summer months in many locations and with the mountains subzero readings are not unusual in the winter. Our home in Seattle benefits from the short Olympic Mountains range which prevents fierce storms from the Pacific Ocean from hitting this city. Although sunshine is not exactly abundant, neither is rainfall which is less than any outsider is willing to believe. Travel sixty miles up or down the coast and conditions are very different.

This past Sunday we decided to remind ourselves of this variety by driving down to Oregon's largest city Portland, little more than three hours away. As it happened, this was the third time within a month for Marjorie, but I hadn't spent time in that place for many years, just driven through. Sun was out, the city looked beautiful and the 85-degree temperature felt soothing. We had a reason for the trip as the Oregon Bach Festival had sent their troops up from Eugene to perform Verdi's mighty Requiem in Portland's Arlene Schnitzer Hall that afternoon. I had expected such a concert to sell out even in the summer and bought tickets plenty in advance, printing them out but still having to pay Ticketmaster ridiculous fees. Later I saw notices online that discounts were available, an indication that advance sales were not filling the house. However, they were only discounted by 15% for Portland whereas an online search revealed up to 50% off in Eugene itself for the same production. Whatever the ticket prices ended up being, the hall was almost packed.

The Schnitzer auditorium was a pleasant surprise, after a number of years of not being there. I have always sat near the front of the balcony but this time we were on the main floor, in an area than in many halls is a dead spot. This was not the case there. The strings sounded smooth and silky, the brass and percussion was never deafening like in some modern echo chambers. I believe the chorus was amplified but discreetly so. All in all the balance was fine except for the four vocal soloists and the concertmaster in her short solo. Solo violin carries through very well up to the balcony and I assume the same is true with any soloist. However, I seem to remember there having been some balance problems with different orchestral sections, but this was not noticeable where we were seated. I much prefer old concert halls to new ones for their beauty and ambience and certainly Oregonians can be proud of this 1928 landmark. While I don't believe classical music should be performed in an almost 2,800-seat hall, Schnitzer fares no worse than any other such auditorium. The venue is reason enough to make sure that the Oregon Symphony will survive this financially difficult time. At least their expenses are far smaller than most other orchestras in their league as the musician salaries are down to earth. Portland's location would make the ensemble an ideal one for touring both in Oregon and southern parts of Washington State. Many cities fall within a 2+ hour radius from the orchestra's home base, from Eugene to Olympia. Unless I remember incorrectly, the group used to come regularly to perform all the way up to Tacoma a decade or so ago.

I didn't have high expectations for the orchestra as I knew they would be local Eugene musicians, augmented with principals mainly from the Los Angeles area. But the fine playing in the quiet beginning of Requiem aeternam made me feel at ease and the bloopers were very few throughout the long work. Even the off-stage trumpets were fine: I have never taken part in a performance where perfection was achieved. The larger the hall, the more complicated the situation becomes. The inner voices in the strings came through beautifully (having the seconds sit next to the firsts was a good choice) and the woodwinds were a pleasure to listen to for the most part. An announcement was made before the concert, trying to explain why so many sopranos had been advertised as singing the solo part. The audience was informed that the previous couple weeks had been rather hectic for the festival's management. One can only speculate the reasons behind the situation and come to the probable conclusion that the singers and the conductor, Helmuth Rilling, didn't see eye to eye as far as how Verdi's heavenly music should be interpreted. Luckily the third choice, Tamara Wilson, proved to have a beautiful voice and was the strongest member of the vocal quartet. At least to these ears, her high G-flat was gorgeous. Singers, no matter how great, usually possess only a few truly extraordinarily beautiful pitches. The difficult opening of Agnus Dei for soprano and alto in octaves was quite lovely: occasionally the alto, Marietta Simpson, vibrated too much, creating some intonation problems.

Mr. Rilling, of course, is best known for his work in J.S. Bach's music. A few "experts" may disagree with some of his musical opinions, but no one can argue about his incredible knowledge of Bach. Personally, I feel like he has taught me more about this great composer than anyone. His interpretations of the B-minor Mass and St. Matthew Passion will always stay in my mind as the ultimate experiences. Mr. Rilling's forays to later choral/orchestral works have sometimes been criticized, but at least this Requiem was fabulously and faultlessly done. Naturally he conducted from memory as every measure of the music filled his mind: for the moment nothing else mattered. Verdi would have been pleased.

It took an hour to drive a few miles in a traffic jam on I-5 to the bridge crossing the Columbia River but we enjoyed each other's company. By the time we approached Seattle, it was drizzling and temperature was almost twenty degrees cooler. Still, our home town surrounded by all that water and mountains looked more beautiful than ever.
Oregon Bach Festival in Portland – photo by talvi