New Maestro Steps Up, With A Little Boost From Hall’s Reinforced Sound

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David Danzmayr conducting the Oregon Symphony during their season opener. (Photo by Jason DeSomer)

PORTLAND, Ore. — It was a night of high emotions from the outset, when the musicians of the Oregon Symphony stepped onto the stage of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Oct. 2 to sustained applause and cheers from the audience. The elation eased the pain of the 573-day hiatus the orchestra was forced to take because of the pandemic and also reflected an enthusiastic welcome for new music director David Danzmayr in his regular orchestra season debut.

A native of Austria, the 41-year-old Danzmayr also leads the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra in Columbus, Ohio, and is the honorary conductor of the Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra. He took over the helm of the Oregon Symphony from Carlos Kalmar, who led the orchestra for 18 years, garnering four Grammy nominations along the way.

The Oregon Symphony and choruses on opening night. (Jason DeSomer)

Concertgoers had to present a vaccination card or a recent negative COVID-19 test to enter the hall. The 2,700-seat auditorium looked about two-thirds full, including Governor Kate Brown and other state dignitaries in attendance. Listeners could also watch online; this was the first concert the orchestra has livestreamed (with five more to follow).

Another big change for the orchestra involved the revamping of its performing space with the installation of the Constellation Acoustic System from Meyer Sound of Berkeley, Cal. Originally built as a vaudeville venue in 1928, the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall became the Oregon Symphony’s home in 1983 but has suffered from uneven acoustics, with less presence in the lower frequencies. The $9.6 million renovation included 86 ambient-sensing microphones, 293 loudspeakers, digital processing, scenic elements, structural work, draperies, old shell demolition, and safety enhancements.

The sonic improvement became immediately apparent during the world premiere of TIME IN by Kenji Bunch. This four-minute fanfare displayed elements of hip-hop and Chinese opera, starting with a clock-like tick-tock from the percussion. Delicate pizzicatos in the strings transitioned through an upswing of glissandos into a more rhythmic declaration, followed by a sonic clash with daluo (flat Beijing opera gong) and xiao luo (convex Beijing opera gong) ringing with gusto.

The new acoustics of the hall intensified the hushed, suspenseful opening lines of Gabriela Lena Frank’s Elegia Andina. A dark and somber melody from the lower strings emerged with remarkable presence. A stirring motoric passage from the strings gradually subsided and dissolved beautifully. But most impressive were the mercurial, Peruvian-inspired cadenzas from the flutes, which fluttered about gorgeously.

The main work on the concert program, Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor (Resurrection), was divided so that the first movement was played before intermission and the remainder afterwards. Danzmayr, in his introductory comments, said that in the score Mahler had noted a pause of at least five minutes after the first movement. This scheme worked well and provided a nice break for the musicians.

David Danzmayr (Nash Co.)

Under the baton of Danzmayr, the Second Symphony’s dynamic contrasts were superbly rendered. The fortes and the pianissimos reached to the extreme ends. Each accelerando and ritardando terrifically conveyed the heart-stopping, roller-coaster ride that makes the piece so memorable. The strings created lush, ethereal moments. Dance-like and idyllic melodies offered a respite. One off-stage passage for the horns briefly fell out sync before Danzmayr brought them back into the rhythmic fold. In the finale, the wild, apocalyptic cry from the orchestra dramatically subsided and cleared the way for a hushed entry from the Oregon Repertory Singers and the Portland State University Chamber Choir, which were prepared by Ethan Sperry. Soprano Susanna Phillips and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, singing without masks, delivered their lines with a wonderful richness and blend.

From where I sat just a few rows from the front of the stage in the orchestra level, the choir did not have enough “umph” — perhaps due to the masks — to deliver the most climactic, over-the-top passages at the end of the piece. Danzmayr even used a shushing gesture to try to hold the violins back so that the choir would be heard.  

Despite the choir’s lack of volume, the triumphant ending of the piece won over the audience, which responded with jubilant applause and shouts. Mahler’s Resurrection was a superb choice for both the initial downbeat of Danzmayr’s tenure and the orchestra’s long and eagerly awaited return to live performances. Resurrection indeed!

James Bash reviews Portland Opera productions for Opera Magazine and writes freelance articles for a number of publications, including his blog, Northwest Reverb.

1 COMMENT

  1. A poetic description, James! Monday’s concert went much the same way, except… as you might expect, I didn’t sense any lack of choral sound from my seat in the lower mezzanine. Indeed, no doubt thanks to maestro Sperry’s meticulous preparation, maybe with some assist by the new sound system, I don’t think I’ve ever heard such choral clarity and definition at a Mahler symphony in that hall.

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