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Review: ASO With Quattro Mani

Symphony scores with new works by Lansky and Fitkin
Robert Faires, 10:20am, Wed. May. 8, 2013

The rest of Austin may have been experiencing unseasonably cool temperatures, but inside Dell Hall last Friday night spring was in the air, as the Austin Symphony Orchestra brought forth the freshness and vitality in a pair of overtures by Beethoven, a prelude by Delius, and 21st century works by Paul Lansky and Graham Fitkin.

The tone was set at the outset with Beethoven's Overture to Fidelio, the composer's fourth and final attempt to write an opening to the opera in question. ASO Music Director Peter Bay programmed all four overtures for the symphony's spring concerts, giving audiences a chance to hear how a great composer reworked material with which he was dissatisfied. His ultimate version, which opened Friday's concert, showed Beethoven in a jaunty spirit, all frolicking strings and bounding horns. One could sense in the score the sap of life rising in the springtime, Nature at its most virile, seeking to renew itself. By contrast, his previous attempt, dubbed the Leonore Overture No. 3 and played just after intermission, had a much more tempered sense of vitality. It opened with an elegiac air, full of those low and somber chords that Beethoven employed to such weighty effect. When the music eventually rouses itself to a level of vitality, the mood is less animated than authoritative – spirited and commanding but with that regal reserve that defines Classicism with a capital "c." You could hear the spring in it, but it was Nature flowering in rows of man-made beds rather than the wildness of the woods. Bay clearly understood the difference and led the orchestra with subtly different kinds of vigor. The results were similarly robust but distinct, and it was exciting to hear the orchestra tackle this kind of full-blown classicism with such surety and finesse.

Frederick Delius' Prelude to Irmelin was the evening's one real nod to full-blown lyricism. The six-minute distillation of themes that the English composer mined from an unproduced opera may have been based on a Scandinavian fairy tale, but the image its languid melodies evoked for me was of a night under a May moon up a lazy river in the South somewhere – perhaps in Florida, where Delius spent some time managing an orange plantation (!). The orchestra's playing was so fluid, you could just about dip your hand in the sound, like a dreamer in a rowboat, and feel it dripping when you lifted it back up.

More dynamic sensations of the season came from the newest works on the program, Lansky's Shapeshifters and Fitkin's Circuit, both scored for two pianos and orchestra. Both were written since the turn of the century – and what a thrill to have ASO share a pair of such fresh works in one night – but the difference between the two was the difference between an April shower and a May downpour.

Lansky's piece had the lighter touch, with the pianos tripping lightly across the scale for much of the work, sometimes noodling over the same small section of mid-range notes like you might turn a pleasing notion over in your mind again and again, taking delight in the repetition. Pianist Susan Grace of the duo Quattro Mani more than lived up to her name here, her fingers all but dancing across the ivories, and she was matched by her partner of the evening, Steven Beck, substituting for an ailing Alice Rybak, the other half of Quattro Mani. They sparkled in the piece's lightning shifts of mood and captivatingly off-the-beat rhythms, which seemed often to be traveling the jazzy urban landscape of George Gershwin's orchestral works and taking note of the changes wrought in the eight decades since he walked there. The work was deliciously mercurial, and I should think the performance of it by Grace, Beck, Bay, and the ASO made the composer, who was present, flush with pride.

From the first notes of Circuit, though, it was clear this would be no soft shower. Grace and Beck began by banging on the keys with the force of someone knocking on a door who won't be denied entry. Where the Lansky was variable and capricious, the Fitkin was downright neurotic, working and reworking some of the same material to the point of obsession, with a force that suggested an argument in which one voice keeps circling through the same points again and again. Grace and Beck gave the voice a determined insistence, rippling and rippling and rippling through the themes, while the orchestra supplied a rich field of sound behind them that darkened as the material repeated, adding tension and a deepening intensity. Like the best scores of suspense films, Circuit jolted us into feeling psychologically fraught and yet made that a pleasurable state. In that way, it was also like being inside during a thunderstorm, where the you can enjoy the rage of Nature because you're safe and sheltered.

The program demonstrated how well Bay and the ASO can handle both the old and the new. This being spring, though, the signs of new growth are especially welcome. That's no less true in the concert hall than in the garden.

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