Last night’s Oregon Symphony concert ended a monumental (yet unplanned) festival that somehow combined the feel of wake, party, and pilgrimage for over 8,000 folks who packed themselves into back-to-back-to-back sold out halls. Beethoven’s universally venerated Ninth Symphony dominated the program, but the 3-day homestand was also marked by Grammy hopes and Jimmy memories: Along with a nomination for *Best Orchestral Performance hanging in the air, James DePreist, the band’s previous music director, died Friday morning. The charismatic maestro occupied the podium for 23 years, ushering Portland’s orchestra onto the world stage while simultaneously charming everyone within city limits. Scattered flowers, memorial guest books, and spoken tributes made the love from players and patrons palpable, and the scheduled Hindemith overture was respectfully replaced with Gustav Mahler’s beloved Adagietto – a gorgeous meditation on strings and harp – to open the evening’s program.
After this supremely bittersweet slow movement, the stage was set for an early work by Benjamin Britten scored for full orchestra, choir, and solo tenor. Ballad of Heroes is a rarely performed work from 1939, written by an up-and-coming English composer about to set sail for America with his soon-to-be lifelong lover. It would take several more years before Britten snags that first smash hit, but his heroic ballad more than hints at the beguiling mix of unexpected melody and brilliant instrumentation for which the composer would become internationally known. So well known, in fact, that the world’s classical community is celebrating Britten’s centenary throughout 2013, devising programs and staging festivals in his honor. Even before one note of the Ninth had sounded, memories of two musical titans flooded this listener’s thoughts, and I found my heart in a place of joyful gratitude for all that Jimmy and Ben had left for all of us left behind.