Saturday, May 09, 2009

AMERICAN COMPOSERS

The Colorado Symphony permorms a concert of American music this weekend, opening with Samuel Barber's Overture to The School for Scandal, a rather simple piece for the modern era. The orchestra played it fine last night, although guest conductor Larry Rachleff seemed to have problems indicating clear tempo changes all night long. He also seemed to force the tempos into the slightly-uncomfortable range.

This problem was much more obvious in the Gershwin Concerto in F, which is a very difficult piece for the pianist in a number of ways. In addition to requiring virtuoso playing chops, it also requires the player to understand the swing rhythm, which is usually anathema to Classical musicians. Exacerbating the issue last night was the fact that the scheduled soloist was replaced at the last moment by usual conductor Jeffery Kahane, who clearly could have used some more practice time at the lightning tempi that Rachlef chose. Nonetheless, Kahane is an excellent choice for the piece, he is an extremely well-rounded musician who understands the complex needs of the piece. It was a highlight of the evening. I had never seen this piece live before, and I had no idea how difficult the piano part was. It was also a reminder of what a brilliant musician Gershwin was, and what a terrible tragedy that he died so young, unable to continue development. One can only imagine what Gershwin might have given us if he had lived a full life.

Kahane followed the performance with a solo encore, a beautiful and moving version of "America," reminding the audience what an ugly national anthem we have.

The weakest part of the night was a new piece by minimalist composer Jennifer Higdon, Loco. Dedicated to trains, the title was a more accurate description of her orchestration, which was constantly over the top. It's always a flaw of student composers that if they have an orchestra of 100, they feel they need to write for all 100 all the time or they are blowing their opportunity. In addition, it bore an astounding resemblance to one of the most popular contemporary orchestral pieces, John Adams' Short Ride in a Fast Machine, which the orchestra just announced it will be playing next year.

Unquestionably the highlight of the evening was the performance of the suite from West Side Story. It's hard to believe this piece is over 50 years old now. The orchestra played brilliantly. I've never heard 100 people swing as well as they did on "Cool." Like the Gershwin piece, hearing this reminded me how brilliant Bernstein was. The music may be disguised as popular American theater songs, but in addition to his incredible gift for melody ("Maria" may be the most beautiful song ever written, and in the same musical is "Somewhere."), Bernstein managed to sneak just about every imaginable modern technique into this work. Modality, polytonality, changing time signatures, jazz, Latin-American music ("Mambo!"); and yet it remains a coherent whole even in suite form. Perhaps the only thing the suite lacks is a full statement of "Maria," which is performed only vocally in the musical. The only weakness of the night was the conductor's unclear tempi, which ruined an otherwise outstanding performance.
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