‘Peer Gynt’ In Sound And Vision From Oregon Symphony

Incidental music to ‘Peer Gynt’ was paired with extensive Alexander Polzin visuals as part of the Oregon Symphony’s SoundStories series, which has become popular under music director Carlos Kalmar. (Jason DeSomer)
By James Bash

PORTLAND – Grieg’s incidental music for Peer Gynt received an evocative, outstanding interpretation by the Oregon Symphony on May 11 at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall as part the orchestra’s SoundStories concerts. The series offers a visual element to the music and has been embraced by concertgoers enthusiastically. This time around, the German sculptor, painter, and stage designer Alexander Polzin provided his own visualization of Grieg’s score, but Polzin’s imagery mostly went wide of the mark and didn’t enhance the music all that much.

Since Henrik Isben’s play Peer Gynt – which he wrote as a lengthy prose poem – lasts about four hours, the story is mostly known through Grieg’s music, which he condensed to a pair of suites that are very popular. In the concert I attended, the Oregon Symphony played all of the incidental music that was written for orchestra and soprano. A couple of pieces that feature a chorale ensemble were not included.

Oregon Symphony music director Carlos Kalmar

Guided by music director Carlos Kalmar, the orchestra delivered a sumptuous performance. The festive and folksy passages evoked a wedding in a Nordic village while the alternately agitated and brooding Prelude to Act II portrayed the mayhem of the abduction of the bride and sad lament of Ingrid. “In the Hall of the Mountain King” escalated brilliantly into a swirl of sound, and the dance of the Mountain King’s daughter stomped about in a delightfully lopsided style. The music conveying the death of Gynt’s mother, Åse, sank into despair, but that was lifted with the charming and refreshing “Morning Mood” movement. The exotic dances and the dramatic shipwreck were played with élan, and the final set of songs bundled the story in a mist of sweet melancholy.

Canadian soprano Jane Archibald sang with a golden, polished tone that perfectly matched the character of the patient and saintly Solveig, expressing tenderness, hope, and kindness with glistening timbres. She exhibited great patience herself, waiting over an hour before singing “Solveig’s Song,” “Solveig Sings in the Hut,” and “Solveig’s Cradle Song.” Her gorgeous voice wrapped everything up in a beautiful bow.

Polzin’s visualizations of Peer Gynt (above) premiered in 2014 with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. Projected on a large screen behind the orchestra, they often reflected the main character’s chaotic inner state and the overall atmosphere of the story. There were no fanciful depictions of trolls, Norwegian forests, Moroccan towns, or other exotic locations that Gynt visited in his travels. Instead, we were treated to waves lapping on the sides of an isolated cabin on abandoned beach. The interior of the cabin was empty and bleak. Sand spilled out of drawers and cabinets. Spiders appeared to suggest a web of lies, but the ants that crawled across the screen remained a mystery. Cartoon-like outlines of people faded in and out as if in a dream. Sometimes, words would appear to form a sentence or a phrase: “Peer, You Liar!” “No!” “I can conjure the devil.” “I can ride through the clouds on horseback.” “His heart is stubborn.” “His soul is lost.”

Artist Alexander Polzon (© Peter Zische)

While the collage of surreal visuals expressed the moods fairly well – like the candles that burned during the playing of “Åse’s Death” – some images became too repetitive, such as the forlorn, empty shack and the overflowing amount of sand. The eyeballs suspended in space seemed totally disconnected, and the final image of identical coffee cups filled with red flowers on the counter of the cabin’s kitchen didn’t resonate at all.

Earlier in the program, Archibald and the orchestra collaborated in a sensuous performance of Les illuminations by Benjamin Britten, who wrote the song cycle based on Arthur Rimbaud’s collection of poetry with the same name. Rimbaud’s verse was inspired by his brief affair with fellow poet Paul Verlaine, and Britten embraced that with verve, writing inspired music for strings and a soloist (either soprano or tenor).

However, with Archibald’s lovely voice, the verses sounded more or less the same. Each phrase had a lush and exquisite tone so that it all became beautifully uninteresting. I would have liked to have heard more variety in her expression – especially when she sang “I alone have the key to this wild parade,” which occurs three times in the cycle. She sang it with a bit of defiance the last time, but just barely.

The orchestra invested everything it had into the piece with spot-on playing. The opening fanfare created a festive stir. Later, the high-pitched violins produced a tightrope of sound that evoked the steeple and stars in the text. Strumming cellos and violins graced text that suggest seduction, and several of the songs ended with the softest of landings.

The concert opened with Mozart’s Overture to Don Giovanni, another legendary bad boy. As in the other pieces on the program, the orchestra under Kalmar played superbly; their crisp and exciting rendition made me want to hear the entire opera. If there had only been more time.

James Bash is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore. He reviews Portland Opera productions for Opera Magazine and writes for a number of publications, including his blog, Northwest Reverb.