05/23/2012 06:16 pm ET Updated Jul 23, 2012

Oregon Symphony Paints the Town Black With City Noir

It was a dark night. Storm clouds rolled through town, leaving the pavement wet and glistening under a blaze of neon. I ducked into Schnitzer Hall and took shelter in the lower balcony under the sinister glow of chandeliers. Wearing a cocky smirk and five o'clock shadow, the concertmaster waited in silence, a pair of piercing eyes half-hidden under the brim of his fedora...

Thus began the deep baritone voice-over in my brain as the intensely dark magic of City Noir began to unfold Monday night with the Oregon Symphony. Wowee -- John Adams' frenetic piece whips up some serious energy right from the start, I'll tell you what, putting close to 90 musicians (!) instantly to work piling one delicious layer of sound atop the next. Aloof strings mixed with wailing winds on top of vamping piano below bright brass -- every section swelled its ranks for this massively thick number, but the band's deftly assured playing never, ever let it feel heavy. A cramped quarter of the stage was reserved for a fully-loaded battalion of percussionists, whose constant cacophony colored the composition from start to close: a beat cop typing out his report... a single mother cooking with cast iron pans in apartment 4B... the slamming trunk door of a distant '58 Fairlane. This soundtrack of the city was always hinted at, never imitated, allowing each listener their own vivid imagery as we cut from one scene to the next. Major shoutouts to Joël, Jeff, and Aaron on viola, trumpet, and trombone, respectively and respectfully. Simply put, they freaking killed it.

But check it: City Noir was originally conceived around one instrument -- the alto saxophone -- and Portland was damn lucky to have Tim McAllister blowing with the band for their final gig of the season. Not only did John Adams consult with this guy while writing the sax part for his composition, Tim helped with further revisions after playing the 2009 Los Angeles premiere. Dear god, the sounds he was making with our symphony were kah-razy sweet, suggesting the freedom of John Coltrane, the virtuosity of Joe Lovano, and the introspection of Sonny Rollins on the Williamsburg Bridge. Unable to contain myself, this eager blogger tracked down Mr. McAllister for a post-concert reaction:

Pretty insane part, huh? It is exhilarating to play with such great orchestras like Oregon. I feel it is the most important part for the saxophone ever written.

Um, okay... After a quote like that, I think it's time to call it a wrap.
[cue voice-over]
There are eight million stories in the naked (bike-riding) city. This has been one.