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The Oregon Symphony: Alive and Transfigured

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"Goot Eevnink..." The first words out of Maestro Kalmar's mouth Monday night were not only welcoming, they were prophetic. Turns out the evening was going to be very good indeed -- the final performance of a three-day homestand featuring the band's intrepid music director back on the podium and soprano Amber Wagner back in the Beaver State. It was a special occasion after all, so the program appropriately kicked off with some occasional music from Mozart: his "Posthorn" Serenade No. 9 to be precise. What could have been utterly forgettable classical Musak® in the hands of most composers, the recessional accompanying Salzburg Benedictine University's latest batch of grads in 1779 was penned by a 23-year-old hometown genius, and we humans still find ourselves playing the music today minus any expectation of turned tassels or tossed caps. Elegantly joyful and perfectly crafted, Wolfgang's episodic serenade served as a brilliant showcase for the elite group of orchestral musicians assembled. On flute and oboe, principals Jess Sindell and Marty Hebert stuck every complicated landing, flawlessly illustrating the technical marvel that is the Oregon Symphony woodwind section. And those strings! (Sigh.) The violins never sounded sweeter, once again weaving sonic wonder, skillful precision, and powerfully surprising emotions under the leadership of newly minted concertmaster Sarah Kwak. After seven movements of absolute acoustic pleasure, the Schnitzer crowd was dismissed for intermission, instilled with a great spirit of encouragement and expectation for the very, very near future.

The program's second half required the fiddlers to redouble their numbers, joining a universally beefed-up band for an epic Strauss two-fer: Death and Transfiguration followed seamlessly, without applause, by the composer's posthumously published Four Last Songs. (Intriguingly, Kalmar and the orchestra also employed this attacca format of musical collage in their most recent collaboration with a solo vocalist -- a program recorded and currently nominated for a Grammy.) The singer joining the symphony this time 'round was a voluptuous Roman goddess named Amber Wagner, who graced the Portland stage three years ago for Rossini's rather unsorrowful Stabat Mater. Since that time, Hillsboro's heroine has made both her European and Metropolitan Opera debuts, returning home not as a student, but as a bona fide star. Sitting center stage during Death and Transfiguration, the soprano (thankfully) had zero poker face, instantly absorbed by the symphonic power, swaying, smiling and stealing glances of a conductor in the midst of obvious delight. Unsurprisingly, the tone poem set the tone perfectly as an introduction to the four final songs Richard Strauss ever composed, and as Ms. Wagner rose to greet her cue, instantly her own transfiguration from audience member to angel was complete.

At this point in our review, a more seasoned critic would handily describe the subsequent performance of Four Last Songs, dutifully noting the orchestral and vocal proficiency on full display. As this particular blogger begins to well up with tears when faced with the memory of Monday night, however, it's probably best to skip any futile attempts at explaining the sublimely ineffable. Instead, I leave you with Maestro Kalmar's most apt description of Amber Wagner: "Whenever she opens her mouth, gold comes out." Indeed. After the final last song was sung and the hushed strings, winds, and brass slowly left this world forever, somehow the sound of an intensely precious yet supple voice remained, offering hope that in the end -- in the very end -- everything would be okay.