Oberlin Orchestra 9/27 Concert (Rubin Institute Qualifying Review)

What do the Americas sound like? They are raucous but soulful, throbbing yet mystical, bluesy and tempestuous, sometimes driving and sometimes expansive. That is, at least on the basis of the Oberlin Orchestra’s concert on September 27 in Finney Chapel, which showcased two South American and two North American composers.

The program opened with an attempt to capture a part of the Americas in sound. Alberto Ginastera’s Pampeana No. 3, Op. 24 was inspired by the pampas of Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina, Ginastera’s birthplace. Instead of creating an idealized, mythical imagining of a landscape as Aaron Copland did with the American West, Ginastera paints a subtle and nuanced portrait of these vast plains.

“Adagio contemplativo” begins the piece in twilit mystery, with murmurings in the low strings and dissonant flute pulses. Conductor Raphael Jiménez and the basses of the orchestra perfectly maintained the eerie atmosphere, as more strings entered with anguished lines reminiscent of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra.

 

Color floods the pampas in the second movement, “Impetuosamente,” as if the sun had risen and brought the flora and fauna to life for a wild dance. Jiménez skillfully exploited Ginastera’s broad palette of sounds, which includes plucked bass lines, strings tapped with bows, bucolic horn chorales, and burbling bassoon.

“Largo con poetica esaltazione” ends the work eloquently and prayerfully, a drastic contrast to the following piece, Ricardo Lorenz’s “Olokun’s Awakening,” which received its world premiere. Crowd-pleasing and highly dramatic, it is the opening scene of The Tale of Chacumbele, an as-yet-unfinished melodrama. Different characters announce themselves with a crazed soprano saxophone solo and a demented waltz, while stormy strings whirl in and out of the foreground. Despite some discontinuity between sections and phrases, this is a highly effective work, and Lorenz, present at the concert, received a resounding ovation.

Glissandos dominated the North American half of the program. Slides by Derek Bermel (who was also present at the concert) is constructed of swoops and blurs of all sorts. The orchestra bravely abandoned beauty of tone in the first movement, moaning and shrieking like a room full of ballistic apes. The melancholy solos in the second movement lacked soul, though the strings provided a luscious backdrop. Weakest of the three movements was the carnivalesque last, with a lamely square drum-set beat and plunger-muted brass sounding like the monotone parent voices in a Charlie Brown cartoon.

And then came the most famous glissando of all: the clarinet solo at the beginning of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, obscenely smeared by César Palacio. Oberlin piano professor Sanford Margolis played the exuberant solo piano part as if he were improvising it on the spot. He delighted in each unexpected harmony and launched into melodies as though guided by pure inspiration, enlivening the tried-and-true cadenzas with spontaneity and glee. Disappointingly, the piano was nearly covered by the orchestra in tutti sections. But that’s what the Americas are like: filled with a multitude of voices, all gloriously clamoring to be heard.

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