Austin Symphony: The French Connection II

Local Arts Reviews

French Connection II: Not All French, But Still 'Trés Bien'

Bass Concert Hall, Jan. 31

The Austin Symphony's Jan. 31 concert was to have been all French, but matters of health changed that. Because of Kent Kennan's decision to forego dialysis, his 90th birthday was celebrated three months early with the slow movement of a symphony he wrote 60 years ago but had never heard in person.

Kennan acknowledges his debt to teacher Howard Hanson, and although it is heavily cloaked with Hanson's American romanticism, you still hear Kennan's voice clearly, especially in its meticulous orchestration and well-drafted shape, stirring in one instrument at a time to swelling into a perfectly formed orchestral soufflé.

This music suits conductor Peter Bay's talent for bringing out timbrel flavor to bolster the musical argument, and the performance resounded as personal tribute from each musician on stage to a beloved and respected teacher/composer who helped shape American music. Now folks are asking to hear the whole thing.

André Watts got his start by doing the impossible. In 1963, the teenager filled in for Glenn Gould with the New York Philharmonic, and that superhuman glow remained on his astonishing 1970s solo recital at Palmer Auditorium. But his 1988 ASO appearance was, if not a disaster, a huge disappointment, coming weeks after a cheeky three-concerto broadcast concert celebrating the 25th anniversary of that 1963 triumph. He had taken on too much, and his shaky Brahms' First Concerto suffered memory slips.

This time Watts was in a similar spot but for a different reason: a subdural hematoma in December. He did what he should have done in 1988. He changed the program, from Saint-Saens to Beethoven's Emperor Concerto. The superhuman control and virtuosity were in full force, but the human factor made this memorable. It was as if Watts were thinking out loud as he fingered through the as-yet-unformed themes that open the last movement -- a glimpse of Beethoven's jolt realizing the raw material's potential and making that realization part of the music. Watts and the orchestra gave us one of those rare, exhilarating conversations where everyone really hears one another and addresses each other's subtlest points.

Oh yes, this was to have been a French program. Chabrier's Joyeuse March was certainly not sloughed off but not secure enough for unconditional joy. Bay deftly charted the psychology and terpsichorean sweep of Ravel's La Valse, fully colored in by the players.

There is nothing touristy about Albert Roussel's overlooked Third Symphony, which would have been the original program's center of gravity. It delivers what we need from great music: a fresh, individual perspective, with jarring surprises and lots of tension. And Bay expertly guided the musicians and audience through its challenging plot turns -- a good argument for keeping orchestras around.

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Austin Symphony, ASO, The French Connection II, Peter Bay, Kent Kennan, Howard Hanson, André Watts, Glenn Gould, New York Philharmonic, Brahms: First Concerto, Beethoven: Emperor Concerto, Chabrier: Joyeuse March, Ravel: La Valse, Roussel: Third Symphony

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