By Barry Johnson
During Saturday night's delightful Portland Youth Philharmonic concert, filled with deft music-making by the musicians of the orchestra and soloist Jun Iwasaki, I was moved to laughter three separate times. When I say "laughter," I mean something more like "suppressed chuckle," given the circumstances, but it would have been further down the spectrum of "mirthful expression" if I hadn't been surrounded by other people enjoying the music.
Let's see. The first came toward the end of Charles Ives' amusing set of variations on the tune to America ("My country, 'tis of Thee,/ Sweet Land of Liberty/ of Thee I sing...") when the orchestra launched into the flamenco version of the song. I'm sorry but the syncopated America is just funny, and if you imagine a stage full of smoldering dancers and fancy flamenco dresses, flirting provocatively to "Land of the pilgrims' pride," well, you'll be surpressing a guffaw, too.
The second laugh was at my own expense. We had entered the second movement of Leonard Bernstein's Serenade after Plato's Symposium, the Aristophanes Allegretto, and I had been scrambling mentally to connect the music coming from the orchestra with what I remembered of Plato's series of meditations on love. The first movement confused me completely, but I thought that anything based on the great satirist Aristophanes would be comic. Surely the connection between Plato and the music would become clear here, but no, silly me, Bernstein took a completely different tack, and wrote something sweet and warm. I gave up with a laugh. And then I thought, "If I'm laughing during the un-comic rendering of Aristophanes, does that not make it comic after all?" -- and that just increased the effect. I was laughing at not laughing!
Finally, we moved on to Howard Hanson's Symphony No. 3, Op. 33. Hanson, music director David Hattner told us, built the Eastman School of Music in Rochester into one of the world's premier training grounds for composers, conductors and musicians. In fact, the long-time music director of the Portland Youth Philharmonic, Jacob Avshalomov, studied there. As a composer, Hanson tended toward the Romantic, which might have been fine if he had written music in the 19th century, but he composed his third symphony in the late 1930s, and it seemed, even then, a bit like a movie soundtrack, Hattner said.
The first movement was pleasant enough, which I suppose implies a criticism of sorts, but the second movement summoned forth images of those old sword-and-sandal movies, handsome heroes saving fair maidens with sweeping vistas in the background. Goodness! Hattner was absolutely right: the heart swelled with the music and then the brain laughed at the heart for being so suggestible! So, my brain laughed, and my heart admitted that it could be a sap on occasion.
One of the best things about this concert for me was that I'd never heard any of the music on the program (Hanson's minute-long Fanfare for the Signal Corps was the set-up for his third symphony). Ives wrote his variations on America when he was 17. He made it for the organ, and then later it was orchestrated by William Schuman. It's like a stem cell for the rest of Ives' work -- the sense of humor, the ear for popular music, the fearlessness -- and I was happy to hear it.
The Bernstein is rarely performed, and it was fun to listen for those signature jazzy New York rhythms alongside the more lyrical and classically "pure" passages. And listening to Hanson, the music educator, raised all sorts of questions about music pedagogy in the early part of the 20th century.
The other "best thing"? At the end of the concert, the first performance of this year's class at the Portland Youth Philharmonic, the musicians lingered onstage a bit and then started whooping in celebration. That was my fourth laugh, inspired by their own laughter and happy wooting. Because frankly, I hadn't really thought about their age until that moment, and I realized how much I liked that exuberance, that sense of freedom, that sheer enjoyment at the music they had played and their sense of accomplishment. Classical music needs more moments like that one.
It also needs more audience members like the little boy behind me. He was obsessed with the night's soloist, violist Jun Iwasaki, the concertmaster of the Oregon Symphony. It was Jun Iwasaki this and then Jun Iwasaki that and then when was Jun Iwasaki coming on. He was silent during the Ives, except during the intervals between movements, when he'd roll those syllables out of his mouth again. I think he just loved saying it. Finally, his older companion, his mother I assume, shushed him, worried I suspect that he was irritating the older folk around them. But not a bit. It was music to my ears.
Speaking of Jun Iwasaki, his performance in the Bernstein was predictably terrific. Hattner said that he has a great rapport with the musicians, which makes sense because he's so young and plays so confidently, a lot like the orchestra itself. His playing caught the lyricism in Bernstein's Serenade, gentle and tuneful, and then shifted into high gear with relish when Bernstein went up-tempo.
The orchestra reclaimed a little piece of its history a couple of weeks ago, appearing in Burns, Oregon, where the founder of PYP, Mary Dodge, first landed in Oregon a hundred years ago and started the Sagebrush Orchestra, which morphed into PYP when she moved to Portland. On the PYP's musicians blog, Kelsey Johnson writes a little about the trip.