PORTLAND — Fortitude through music, the theme of Oregon Symphony’s Jan. 27 concert, aptly reflected the feelings onstage and offstage at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. The program, featuring works by Louise Farrenc, Hans Abrahamsen, and Robert Schumann, touched on that theme, which was augmented by the appearance of guest conductor Markus Stenz, who, with two weeks’ notice, replaced an ailing Mario Venzago. On top of that, the denizens of Portland were thawing out after a week-long pummeling of freezing rain that put the city in an icy headlock.
The concert marked a return engagement for Stenz, who led the orchestra in January 2019 in Unsuk Chin’s Violin Concerto with soloist Viviane Hagner. This time around, Stenz collaborated with Tamara Stefanovich to conquer Abrahamsen’s Left, Alone, a starkly brilliant concerto for piano left hand and orchestra. Stefanovich recently released Abrahamsen’s piece with WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne on the Winter & Winter label.
Left, Alone, written in 2015, is a very tricky and challenging piece. The Danish composer was born with an impairment so that only two fingers of his right hand function completely. This physical limitation caused him to focus on what pianists can accomplish with only the left hand, as in works by Ravel, Britten, Hindemith, Janáček, Korngold, and Martinů.
The work is divided into two parts with three movements for each half. Despite a sonic outburst by the pianist and orchestra at the beginning and end, the piece as a whole creates a sparse sound world. It is a quiet, with brief stretches during which no one is playing anything. Perhaps the music was meant to convey isolation and snow falling on a barren landscape. The intensity of musicians counting like crazy through gaps and myriad meter changes could almost be felt. That made the audience listen intensely, too. Fortunately, no one’s cell phone went off, but the quietest moments allowed the audience to hear people talking in the hall’s lobby.
One very odd thing about the piece is that it uses two pianos: one for the soloist and another placed at the rear of the orchestra, which was played by an orchestral musician now and then to add more color. That made the piece sound fuller, but if you only listen to a recording, you cannot distinguish between the two pianos unless you have a score. Also, near the end of the concerto, Stefanovich stood up and leaned into the piano to pluck and/or caress some strings. It was difficult to tell, because the sound she made was so subtle. Overall, I got the impression that the soloist is more a part of the orchestral sound rather than entertaining us with virtuosic fireworks.
Like a lot of recent works, Left, Alone doesn’t have a grand finale or any kind of signal that an end is nigh. It just blithely stops in mid-sentence. Perhaps that suggested the moment when snow stops falling. The audience responded with warm applause, which brought Stefanovich back to the stage. Although she did not play an encore Saturday, she did deliver one at her Sunday and Monday appearances, dazzling the audience with Debussy’s Etude for Eight Fingers.
Louise Farrenc (1804-75) showed an abundance of fortitude as a French woman who succeeded as a composer, pedagogue, and concert pianist during a time when men dominated all aspects of music-making. Farrenc’s Concert Overture No. 1 in E minor received an incisive performance, highlighted by a taut yet generous sound from the entire ensemble. This rarely heard gem offered a big opening statement, lovely melodic lines, fleet finger-work for the strings, dramatic tension, and a grand conclusion.
In 1845, Schumann broke out of a two-year bout of depression to begin writing his Symphony No. 2 in C major. For this concert, that creative outburst symbolized another example of fortitude. In the music, the spirit of resilience emerges right away in the fanfare-like motto that opens the symphony and recurs in the Scherzo and in the last movement.
Stenz conducted the Schumann from memory, showing lots of passion with precise and evocative gestures. Eschewing a baton, he became an animated presence on the podium, always finding just the right motion with his hands, face, and upper torso to elicit a marvelous performance from the orchestra. Under his urging, the ensemble executed flawless exchanges and delicious dynamics. It delved into nuances, as in the second movement, when it slowed down just a tad at the end of a phrase, which was nicely repeated a few times. The audience signaled approval with spontaneous applause after each movement, including the delicate Adagio expressivo of the third movement. After the triumphant ending, concertgoers unloaded their unbridled enthusiasm.