In concert: Symphony No. 5, op. 47, Allegretto; Portland Youth Philharmonic

Although I’m flying to the East Coast tonight (in fact, I’m in an airport Bier Stube right now) I’d seen that the Portland Youth Philharmonic was opening a free concert at 5:00 with the scherzo from Shostakovich’s fifth symphony, and it seemed appropriate to stop in for the time that I could.  I’ll note here that I’m going try to catch what performances of Shostakovich’s music I can, regardless of chronological order, and write them up here.

The PYP (conducted by David Hattner) played at the Tom McCall Waterfront Park downtown, a convenient minutes-long bike ride from my office — they were the opening act for the Oregon Symphony’s free outdoor season kickoff concert, the kind that ends with the 1812 Overture.  It’s a scenic performance space, as far as big white tents go, with the Willamette River and the angular Hawthorne Bridge looming right behind it.  A good crowd had already staked out their spaces with blankets and lawn chairs.

I’d wondered whether the second movement of the fifth made sense as a concert opener but without the darker material of the rest of the symphony around it it’s an amiable piece of music, well suited to casual, chatty environments.  (Most of the piece was accompanied for me by a group of folks in front of me arriving piecemeal, exchanging hugs and hellos, unfolding chairs, occluding my view.)  In fact, I recall, in the Soviet anniversary release of The Battleship Potemkin, scored with symphonic Shostakovich excerpts, the allegretto underscores the moments right before the famous Odessa Steps sequence, as the civilians mill about right before the czarist soldiers mow them down.  No such ominous implications this evening.  The allegretto came off as loamy and heavy-footed, somehow more obviously a throwback to Gustav Mahler in isolation than in its place within the whole, only mildly ominous around the edges.

I heard the orchestra through loudspeakers a good distance from the stage but they sounded tight and, under the circumstances, well balanced.  The amplification sounded great by public park standards but still shortchanged the strings and put a pretty coarse burr onto the brass sound, with the woodwinds holding their own in between.  The solo woodwinds, so important to the movement’s bitey charm, sounded particularly strong (just a couple of excusable bassoon missteps).  All in all it was well performed and I appreciate more than I did yesterday that it’s a robust six minutes of music, able to communicate its musical essence through a bunch of external distractions.

After it ended, at risk of seeming overly narrow in my musical interests, I walked back over to the bike racks.  I did get to hear an impressive young violinist (Natally Okhovat, the program tells me) cut through the introductory half of Saint-Saens’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, her solo line nicely audible over the Naito Parkway traffic, before I pedaled over the bridge and home.  A nice detour for a Thursday afternoon that felt like a Friday.


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