“West Side Story” Concert Cycle – Carson Cooman

The most recent concert set,
entitled “West Side Story” promised a sort of excitement that appealed particularly
to my own interests – two world premieres of newly commissioned works. The PSO is to be strongly commended for its
ongoing commitment to new commissions, and especially its innovative “composer
of the year” program which has brought us significant musical figures such as
Christopher Rouse (last year), Jennifer Higdon (currently), and Chris
Theofanidis (next year).

The orchestra has perhaps fallen
a bit into the “concerto trap” that plagues many new orchestras – commissioning
almost exclusively concerti, because they serve as display vehicles for either
famous guest soloists or the wonderful principals within the PSO. While these are exciting and appealing, one
wishes for some other kinds of new works in the roster. Although next season promises at least one
new commissioned concerto (by Theofanidis for superstar violinist Sarah Chang),
it also involves great excitement in the co-premiere of Russian composer Sofia
Gubaidulina’s new work Feast During a Plague. Gubaidulina is, without doubt, one of the
most significant composers in the world today, a new work from her is
always a cause for great excitement and international interest.

Higdon’s Trombone Concerto had
been planned as a commission for principal trombone Pete Sullivan before Higdon
had been engaged as “composer of the year.” The work felt under-rehearsed (at least in Friday’s performance), and it
seemed as though a number of typical balance issues had not been addressed
during the rehearsal process. Pete
Sullivan’s gorgeous sound was often obscured in the midst of a colorful swirl
of orchestral activity. Still, Higdon’s
sound world is a beautiful one, and she writes music with organic shape and
drive. Hopefully future performances of
this work will allow a more full evaluation of its merits. Higdon is an excellent composer, and I have
every reason to believe that the piece has more strengths than were shown in
the performances.

The greatest disappointment on
the program was Lucas Richman’s newly commissioned Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra,
“The Clearing”
.
Seemingly the
result of an unfortunate case of “musical nepotism”, Richman’s weak
composition should never have been commissioned or programmed by
an
orchestra at the level of the PSO. Cynthia
De Almeida is a truly amazing soloist – with a high register “to die
for.” The concerto was a waste of her considerable interpretive
and technical gifts as she tried to make the most of its obsessively
uninteresting melodic material, simplistic textures, and blocky
orchestration.

It should be re-iterated that,
despite issues with either performance or composition of the two new concerti,
Sullivan and DeAlmeida showcased their truly amazing tone. Both are players who excel at singing,
beautiful lines – impressively controlled throughout the entire range of their
instruments.

Opening the program was perhaps
the most dull orchestra composition Dvorak ever wrote – the Symphonic
Variations.
The work begins with
a theme of such banality that one really wonders why he even bothered
completing the piece. It moves slightly
towards redeeming itself in the final three minutes or so – where the
concluding variation, an energetic fugue, incorporates humor (including an
allusion to Beethoven’s Egmont Overture)
and appeal that had been entirely lacking from the previous 20 minutes.

Leonard Bernstein’s wonderful set
of Symphonic
Dances from “ West Side
Story” received what seemed an overly fussy and not particularly “American”
reading in the hands of Sir Andrew Davis. His podium gestural language seemed at odds with the composition – that
is, if you “turned the sound off” and just watched, you’d never have guessed he
was conducting Bernstein, let alone “mambos” and “cha-chas”! Sloppiness in wind and brass playing in the
quiet sections was below the level of performance of which the PSO is capable.

Presenting world premieres of new
pieces is something which sometimes comes off brilliantly, sometimes comes off
very badly, and usually sits somewhere in between. That does not mean, however, that it is worthless
to continue to do such things. It is
part of excitement and joy of live music-making that concert experiences have
both highs and lows – and that new works are brought to the public. Careful
choice of the composers (and their ability) is significant. While this concert set did not, for me, live
up to expectations which I had for, it presented some admirable attempts and
processes – particularly in the commissioning of a work by Jennifer Higdon.

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Feb 22