Austin Symphony With Norman Krieger

Local Arts Reviews

Austin Symphony With Norman Krieger

Bass Concert Hall, March 19

On the first anniversary of the American-led invasion of Iraq, the Austin Symphony offered an evening of American and American-inspired music by 20th-century composers from Gershwin and Copland to local composer Donald Grantham and Frenchman Maurice Ravel. ASO music director Peter Bay has long championed American and modern works, and while one may wonder whether he intended to mark this particular anniversary so brazenly, the selections themselves offered a pleasing variety of views of the American landscape, not without some sense of the direness of war, but more with a great sense of empathy for the America of sweeping vistas, busy streets, and the quirky characters that people this land of ours.

Up first: Grantham's Southern Harmony, an orchestral take on traditional songs of the region that started with "The Midnight Cry" – breathing woodwinds, a clock chiming, and a steady build of sound and energy. The rolling cellos of "Wondrous Love" offered a calmer, more intimate second movement. The third, a delightful arrangement of "Exhilaration" saw a trio of violinists on their feet, more fiddlers than classical musicians, while the rest of the orchestra kept time with syncopated hand-claps – a barn dance atmosphere of joy and youth that evoked spontaneous applause from the audience. The final movement, "The Soldier's Return," depicted in sound feelings of warmth and of the familiar, as if the homeland opened its arm to draw in the returning warrior. Glory, even, sounded in rising phrases. Yet tagging along through the movement, something dark and forbidding – as if the war were coming home, too, unshakably connected to one doomed never to fully return to simpler, more innocent days.

The dark theme that permeated "The Soldier's Return" continued through the first notes of Ravel's Concerto in D Major for Piano (Left Hand Alone) and Orchestra, with opening double bass notes dark and deep, aided by a thrumming bassoon, creating something of a dangerous rumble. Guest pianist Norman Krieger, exceptional throughout, began to sway in anticipation of his entry, Ravel's rhythmic, roiling music building in waves. Krieger – performing with left hand only, occasionally clutching the side of the piano with his right hand as he made his way to the higher notes – was a picture of strength and assuredness. Among Ravel's rhythmic roil, passages of exquisite delicacy made apparitionlike appearances, and here, too, Krieger's performance was exact and sensitive.

After the intermission, Krieger returned for Gershwin's rambunctious Second Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra, something of a wild piece, with dollops of recognizable Gershwin themes recalling his more famous Rhapsody in Blue. A quintessential American sound, but rather than one of sweeping openness, this work recalled the frantic city, the chaos and confusion of an overpeopled street scene. And then, after all that movement and jumble, a sudden, passionate finale to pull the work together.

As the closing selection, Bay chose Copland's Suite From Appalachian Spring, as stately as its predecessor was subversive. Besides the evident folk song sources wending their ways through the piece, Copland's work, adeptly performed by the orchestra, offered wonderful detailed passages, almost like miniature character portraits from small-town America, full of the stories of colorful individuals in their hitherto unseen lives. The closing exhalation of sound, clean and confident and serene, rolled the evening to a contented, peaceful reflection of the opening woodwind call to awaken.

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Austin Symphony, Norman Krieger, Gershwin, Copland, Donald Grantham, Maurice Ravel, ASO, Peter Bay, Southern Harmony, "The Midnight Cry", "Wondrous Love", "Exhilaration", "The Soldier's Return", Concerto in D Major for Piano (Left Hand Alone) and Orchestra, Second Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra, Suite from Appalachian Spring

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