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Between Storm Large and mysterious fireballs, the Oregon Symphony gets incendiary

May 05, 2013

Carlos Kalmar and the Oregon Symphony were supposed to be off to New York again this week for the sequel to their acclaimed debut at Carnegie Hall two years ago. They did manage a quick trip to Seattle on Friday night, but only Portland audiences got to experience the full force of the new brilliant program that got the orchestra invited back to Carnegie for this year's Spring for Music festival, from which the orchestra's management abruptly withdrew in October for financial reasons. It looked fascinating on paper, and Saturday night it was fantastic in performance, with Narong Prangcharoen's "Phenomenon" providing the initial spark. Inspired by the mysterious Naga fireballs of the Mekong River and first presented by the symphony 2 1/2 years ago, it was a sonic tour de force vaguely recalling Stravinsky's "Fireworks" and "Firebird," a riot of orchestral color and dynamics ranging from pounding tuttis to a glassy, floating pianissimo in strings at the close.

With the heat and light of "Phenomenon" still lingering, Storm Large then lent her incendiary presence to Kurt Weill's "Seven Deadly Sins." Even among the less vocal fans of our fair city -- the ones who don't think "Portlandia" is particularly funny, and who find the self-conscious weirdness a little tiresome -- is there anyone whose heart doesn't swell with pride at the thought that our hometown chanteuse is this statuesque singer/actor/author with a personality eight miles wide?

She has sung with the Oregon Symphony before, and last month joined guest pianist Kirill Gerstein in a surprise encore of Gershwin's "Summertime," but Weill's "sung ballet" on fortune-seeking and the wages of sin was her first go at a large-scale work with the orchestra. She pulled it off at no cost to her considerable charisma, exploiting both her singing and acting talents in a full-throated, finely nuanced performance, her consistently smoldering demeanor leaving little doubt that one sin rules them all. The male quartet of Jorge Garza, Carl Moe, Anton Belov and Richard Zeller contributed strong counterbalance from the other side of the podium, and Kalmar led the players in lush, responsive accompaniment.

The second half opened with a piece the Seattle audience missed out on, Arnold Schoenberg's "Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene." That's a pity for them, because putting Schoenberg's tense, creepy soundtrack to a nonexistent film before Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony was a stroke of programming genius. Priming a listener's ears with unpredictable, harmonically wayward sounds, it highlighted the odd, mercurial gestures of Schubert's Allegro, rediscovering in a familiar piece the shock of the new. Following the Schubert without a break, Kalmar gave Maurice Ravel's "La Valse" a hint of hesitation in the waltz beat, deftly suggesting simultaneously both nostalgic lilt and frightening lurch into an unsteady future.

Speaking of unsteady, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, no stranger itself to financial woes, is stepping in to bail out the Oregon Symphony on Thursday at Carnegie. Under Leonard Slatkin, Detroit will preserve half the program, including "La Valse" and "Seven Deadly Sins," also with Storm Large. If the performance is anywhere near as good as Saturday night's, the Detroit Symphony will win the kind of praise Oregon's received in New York two years ago and could have had again.