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The Paper Bag Was on My Knee: A Very Soviet Oregon Symphony

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Alamy
Alamy

Monday evening, Portland's big band bid farewell to Hannu Lintu... a guest conductor who is apparently the love child of Garrison Keillor and Plastic Man. The Finnish dynamo mounted the podium after wrapping up his opening monologue and - with one fabulous swish of his baton - conjured up Mr. Modest Mussorgsky's biggest number for orchestra: Atop the Bare Mountain on St. John's Eve. Gentle reader, please forget what you may have heard countless times under a slew of different titles and various guises, because this blogger is here to tell you the 28-year-old Russian's (original) 1867 composition is not pretty, is not polite and is definitely not Disney-fied. The raw ferocity of this music instantly shocked us all in the balcony, and our brilliantly savage orchestra maintained its reign of terror all the way through to Mussorgsky's final note. Yowza. Here's hoping we won't have to wait another 146 years to hear this revelatory and unpolished gem again. Whew! Seriously.

After somehow surviving their stay on Mt. Bald, Maestro Hannu and the band welcomed jazzman Benjamin Schmid to the stage for a fiddle showstopper penned by Camille Saint-Saëns. (Please allow me to address any pronunciation concerns that have just flared up with my mention of Monsieur Saint-Saëns. It's really no big whoop once you get the hang of it: Simply put on your favorite beret, shove a hunk of baguette in your pie-hole, develop a severe sinus infection, tilt your head back, pinch your nose firmly, and confidently declare: Saint-Saëns!) Now that we've cleared that up, let me get back to this violin concerto and vainly attempt to describe how smokin' hot the Oregon Symphony's wind section sounded. Let's see... um, okay... Beautiful? Glorious?? Striking??? Fugheddaboudit. Last evening during Saint-Saëns' slow middle movement, Joe, Todd, Yoshinori, Evan, Adam, Zach, Jess, Marty and both Alicia's brought it on. Y'all never, ever cease to amaze me.

INTERMISSION

Generally speaking, the symphonic output of Shostakovich has all the charms of being waterboarded by a cackling Dick Cheney, and the composer's final symphony is certainly no exception to the rule. Filled to capacity with haunting quotations, harsh angularity and harrowing emotions, Symphony No. 15 by Dmitri Shostakovich is probably music best avoided if suicidal tendencies are at all an issue for you. This composition of uneasy listening was first played 41 years ago in Moscow, but the Oregon Symphony's first performance wasn't until Saturday night in Stumptown. The work opens surprisingly with the bright clarity of a chiming glockenspiel and a deceivingly pleasant flute melody, but the playful façade is quickly destroyed by a stabbing onslaught of evil strings and an eruption of absolute percussive chaos. It's fucking brilliant music. And to hear it played live by a technical army of 76 professional musicians? And as if the remarkable amount of solo time the composer offers to string goddesses Sarah and Nancy weren't parting gift enough, the 65-year-old Shostakovich also left us with some insanely sick writing for symphonic percussionists. I'll tell you what: Yoko & the Boys blew it up at the Schnitz, ripping through an arsenal of toys that included a bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, tam-tam, triangle, castanets, a whip (!), the xylophone, an entire vibraphone kit, four timpani and a most ghostly celesta. Forty minutes of utter dread never sounded better.