Tuesday, May 15, 2012

As one of America's leading pianists....

On May 10, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, under Music Director Robert Spano, presented a concert that included:
Singleton- Different River (World Premiere)
Gershwin- Rhapsody in Blue
Copland- Symphony No. 3
The soloist in the Gershwin was Leon Bates.

Alvin Singleton is a former composer-in-residence with the ASO, when Robert Shaw was music director.  In an interview before the performance, Singleton said that he doesn't want his music to be predictable, and if at any point he thinks it is, he will change direction.  Well, he didn't mislead.  "Different River" is not the Moldau.  It begins with droplet-like sounds in the percussion, which reminded me of how a river gets started high in the hills of somewhere or other.  The piece meanders through a series of segments that, as best I could tell, have little relation to each other, at least thematically.  While colorfully orchestrated, the piece feels fragmented.  I could maybe interpret it as following a unit of water winding its way through various landscapes, from idyllic meadows to bustling cities.  But, I was not engaged.  I did not think this river was particularly exciting, beautiful or coherent.  Maybe with repeated listenings I will better appreciate the work.  but on first hearing, not so much.  I give kudos to maestro Spano for his ongoing efforts to bring new music to Symphony Hall.  As I am always reminded on NPR's Performance Today, all music was once new. But, the ASO was in top form and the percussion section was outstanding. 

At the risk of sounding curmudgeonly, I have grown weary of "Rhapsody in Blue."  It's one of those pieces that are so over familiar that it easy to forgot its contributions to American music.  Thursday night's performance, however, did provide an opportunity to hear it with "new ears."  From the opening The opening of Rhapsody in Blue is written as a clarinet trill followed by a legato 17-note rising diatonic scale. Laura Ardan, the ASO Principal clarinetist, stretched it out into a sultry slide.  Spano emphasized the "jazz" elements of the score, especially notable also in the trumpet and low brass punctuations.  Pianist Bates played assuredly and his piano was never lost in the sound of the full orchestra.  This is one of those concert hall pieces that would be easy to telegraph in, but Spano deserves credit for breathing life into this war horse. 

The Copland 3rd Symphony was written in 1946.  The composer stated that he wanted to break-free of the common view that he only wrote Americana and/or jazz-infused works.  Given that it was composed in the immediate post-war period, it could be interpreted as moving from the gloom of war to the hopeful triumph of mankind.  The symphony begins with a somewhat harsh first movement and ends with a final movement that is built around the composer's famous "Fanfare for the Common Man."  All in all, I like Copland better when he writes Americana and/or jazz-infused works.  The ASO again performed admirably.  Every section of the orchestra was in top form, save the French horns.  The latter always seem to flutter a bit and are, in the immortal word of Randy Jackson, pitchy.  Again, good for Spano programming a work that was written just six decades again when many orchestra's find it necessary to not program pieces written much beyond 1900 (except for Rachmaninov and Sibelius).
Lately, I have had the opportunity to listen to the works of Howard Hanson, a contemporary of Copland.  In many ways these two composers sound alike in their symphonies.  Every so often they come up with memorable melodies (think Hanson's Romantic Symphony), but often they get lost in brass flourishes, percussive accents, and a lot of storm and stress.  Much of this music has faded from the concert hall and maybe it's a good thing.  It may give us time to reflect on it with a greater appreciation for what the post-World War II world was like, including the redesign of Europe, the rise of communism, American optimism, and spiritual rebirth. We shall see.

Before the concert, ASO members appeared in the hallways of Symphony Hall handing out material to patrons about the orchestra's community involvement efforts.  I had the pleasure of meeting bass player Joseph McFadden, trumpeter Karin Bliznik, and cellist Dona Vellek. All three were enthusiastic and charming.  It was a nice touch seeing them and talking a bit about music.  They were dressed in their formal wear and all looked great.  I am reminded why men still wear tails- they look great. 

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