The weather outside (near) frightful
But the music so delightful…
Lotsa interesting things to say about this concert, folks – so let's get started.
I guessing, first off, that the weather must've had something to do with the size of the crowd. While it certainly was more (much more) than "sparse," the hall was just as certainly less than full – as far as I could tell. No biggie, though. The band played great from top to bottom, from Andres Cardenes to Craig Knox.
And while it's always difficult to nail down the details of any sort of national character in music, tonight's program was filled entirely with "American" music – great American music at that. The evening began with the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein. I have to admit I was always more impressed with Bernstein's conducting than his composing. Don't get me wrong, he was a great composer and West Side Story is a great score (as is Candide, for that matter or Chicester Psalms – I could go on but the list is very long) and a Bernstein sneeze is more musical than anything I could ever do, but when the story of 20th Century music is finally written, my guess is that Bernstein's name is higher up on the list of important conductors than important composers – if only for championing the music of Ives and Mahler, not to mention The Unanswered Question lectures and the series of Beethoven symphonies he conduced for PBS in the 1980s.
Back to the show – I can't say enough about how well the orchestra played. Conductor Leonard Slatkin (snappily dressed in a black suit, black shirt, black tie but a dark red hanky – Martin Blank chic, I guess) swaggered and swayed appropriately and conducted some with a baton and some without. It was all rock solid. Absolutely rock solid.
I hate to admit it, but I initially saw the next piece, Concerto 4-3 by Jennifer Higdon, as merely "the piece I didn't know sitting between the two I did." Sorry for that. I do remember hearing the PSO play Higdon's blue cathedral a few years ago and found it, at the very least, a very interesting work – deep and multi-layered without being inaccessible. Part way through last night's Concerto, however, I blinked a few times realizing that I was paying very very close attention what was happening on stage. I knew that something very important was going and I didn't want to miss any part of it. It all kinda snuck up on me. The piece, written for and dedicated to the trio Time for Three, mixed, blended, and pureed bluegrass and the sounds of a full symphony orchestra – but it wasn't merely a simple content/frame sort of thing. The trio (a bass player, seated, and two fiddlers, one taller, one shorter) all played some amazing lines – so amazing I shudder to think how it was all written down (A question to the composer: how WAS all that written down??). The compositional edges between the soloists and the orchestra – the concertino and the ripieno in musicology-speak – were seamless – and yet the "bluegrass" material didn't seem at all forced into an unwelcome setting. It was simply amazing.
The last piece, the Third Symphony of Aaron Copland was written at the end of the Second World War. According to Marc Rohr's program notes, there's not real story or plot to the symphony though Copland admitted it might "reflect the euphoric spirit" of the country right after the defeat of the Axis powers. It's full of the instantly recognizable Copland-esqe gestures. Listen carefully and you can hear similar orchestrational settings from Appalachian Spring, Lincoln Portrait, etc.
Stunningly ending with a resetting of the now-famous Fanfare for the Common Man, one grand irony of this most "American" symphony comes from knowing it's placement in recent American history. Given that as it was written at the end of the Second World War that also means it was written at the beginning of the Cold War – a war on many fronts, foreign and domestic. One of those domestic fronts being the "red scare" of the 1950s. And that grand irony? After much of Aaron Copland's "American" work was composed, he was by mid-1953 called to testify before Senator McCarthy's committee for his alleged "communist affiliations." His name was found on the "Red Channels" list – as was Bernstein's.
One more thing left unsaid in the program notes – One of the most interesting parts of a most interesting evening came in realizing that none of the three great American composers played in last night's concert was straight. This is not to suppose any sort of "gay sensibility" in the composition of music – the Copland was different enough from the Bernstein and each of those were different enough from the Hidgon to belie that notion, but in a post-Proposition 8 America, what does it all mean?
It was all great American music.