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Another Oregon Symphony Album, Another Britten

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I'm not sure what ignited my infatuation with Benjamin Britten. His amazingly colorful orchestration? His out-and-proud lifestyle? His commitment to pacifism? Perhaps I'm just a sucker for alliteration. Whatever the reason, last year's inclusion of Sinfonia da Requiem in the Oregon Symphony's 2011 Spring for Music program sparked my love affair with Britten, which was then nurtured this season by pianist Steven Osborne in November and by the symphony's Suite on English Folk Tunes in February.

I'm happy to report my slightly unhealthy relationship with Uncle Benny is still very much in its honeymoon phase after the band's knockout performance of Four Sea Interludes & Passacaglia Monday night. The violins (sounding more radiant with every concert) set the stage for Britten's scene-changing music, beginning his first sea interlude with an ethereal melody -- a melody that becomes a repeatedly unanswered question over a beefy-yet-restrained orchestra, evoking the beauty of sunrise with a hint of warning. Sunday Morning, the second interlude, sharply depicts villagers as church-going automatons urged to action by church bells and rollicking buoys. (BTW, where else you gonna hear a 14-foot chime in action? Wow.) And then there's interlude No. 3: Moonlight. The warm strings of the viola, cello, and bass sections... the support from a smattering of woodwinds... the crisp percussive accents... I think it just might be four minutes of the most brilliant music ever written for orchestra. These moonlit whitecaps were followed in concert by Britten's Passacaglia -- a disturbing interlude amongst the interludes.

Major props go out to chief violist Joël Belgique, whose instrument sounded downright amplified up in the lower balcony as it creepily traced the unraveling mind of rough-and-tumble fisherman Peter Grimes. Oh, sure -- the Mahlerian thuds from Sergio's bass drum and the subterranean growl from Evan's subwoofin' contrabassoon also colored the title character's desperate situation with fairly dark shades of gray. The set of interludes ended stormily, giving Jon "Animal" Greeney (welcome back!) and his 70-some co-workers a chance to blow the Schnitzer crowd out of the water, chugging to a capsizing climax. Luckily for the world, this performance was recorded for the band's next album due out in the fall, showcasing (once again!) Coach Kalmar and the Oregon Symphony as masterful interpreters of Benjamin Britten's orchestral anxiety. Bah-rav-oh!