Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Symphony Review: Real American exceptionalism October 16-18, 2015

Steven Jarvi
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The phrase "American exceptionalism" gets misused a lot these days, but as this past weekend's concerts of some wonderfully inventive twentieth-century American music demonstrated, sometimes the USA can take credit for things that are, indeed, exceptional.

The concerts opened with a pair of suites by Leonard Bernstein: "Three Dance Episodes" from his first major Broadway hit "On the Town" (which opened in December 1944) and the "Symphonic Suite" from his score for the 1955 Elia Kazan film "On the Waterfront." The stylistic contrast between the two was striking. The selections from "On the Town" are brash and pure Broadway, albeit with some sophisticated harmonies and polyrhythms that weren't typical of the Broadway stage back then. The longer and more dramatic film music packs more of an emotional punch, moving from mechanistic aggression to lyricism to an exultant but dissonance-tinged finale.

Roger Kazaa
All of that calls for a wide range of interpretive skills from both the conductor and musicians—which Resident Conductor Steven Jarvi and the players delivered in abundance. I have noted in the past that Mr. Jarvi is a magnetic and physically exuberant figure on the podium who has shown the he's equally at home in both the classical and pop worlds, handling Vivaldi, Leroy Anderson, and film music with equal aplomb. As a result, his "On the Town" dances had both the swing and sense of freedom this stuff demands, as well as real precision and a fine ear for detail. And his "On the Waterfront" had all the necessary drama.

There are lots of exposed solo parts in this music, including an opening horn solo in "On the Waterfront" that's nearly as scary as the one in Strauss's "Till Eulenspiegel" and some nice moments for the alto saxophone. Roger Kazaa handled the former beautifully when we attended Saturday night, as did Nathan Nabb on the latter. The percussion section deserves a shout-out for their work in the first movement's presto barbaro depiction of urban violence, as does Diana Haskell for her E-flat clarinet solos in "On the Town."

Inon Barnatan
Photo: Marco Borggreve
After intermission came this week's relative rarity, Aaron Copland's 1926 "Piano Concerto." It's a work which, Paul Schiavo points out in his program notes, dates from a time when Copland—then a brash young man in his mid-20s—was making a name for himself with "works that vibrated with the exciting new rhythms of the Jazz Age." Even so, you can hear elements of the expansive style that would later characterize Copland's popular ballet scores and the "Symphony No. 3" in the opening theme of the blues-tinged first movement.

What apparently put off the audience at the concerto's 1927 premiere, though, was the polyrhythmic and exuberantly surreal take on 1920's dance styles like the Charleston that characterizes the concerto's second (and final) movement. It starts with an extended and slightly loopy passage for the soloist that is intended to suggest improvisation. The music careens around drunkenly until finally joining the full orchestra, a manic dance that might have been played by Paul Whiteman's band had they taken hallucinogens. It's a hoot and a half, and sounds hard as hell to play.

Soloist Inon Barnatan was clearly in complete control of this wild and woolly material and appeared to be enjoying himself immensely, as was Mr. Jarvi. I was so captivated I failed to take a single note (hey, it happens!) and was happy to give everyone a standing ovation afterwards. I've heard recordings of the concerto in the past, but I think it takes a live performance to really convey the sense of nose-thumbing fun Copland wrote into this music.

Diana Haskell
The concerts concluded with George Gershwin's wildly popular tone poem "An American in Paris." Begun during a trip to Paris in the same year that Copland spent working on his concerto and completed during a longer visit to the City of Light in 1928, the work is a reminder of just how much solid craftsmanship lurks behind Gershwin's irresistible tunes.

As with "On the Town," a performance of this piece "don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing." Because while the composer, in a 1928 Musical America interview, openly acknowledged his nod to "Debussy and The Six" in "An American in Paris," this is still quintessentially Gershwin.  The first statement of the big second theme in the trumpets, for example, calls for a kind of jazzy freedom that might not necessarily come easily to all classically trained conductors and players. Mr. Jarvi and the band got every little nuance of it just right, though, delivering a performance of great energy and clarity.

Next at Powell Hall: John StorgĂ„rds conducts the orchestra with soloist Lars Vogt in Schumann's "Piano Concerto." Soprano Kate Reimann and bass-baritone Jeffrey Heyl sing the wordless solos in Nielsen's "Symphony No. 3" ("Sinfonia espansiva") and the concerts open with Beethoven's "Egmont Overture."  Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. For more information:

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