Susan Isaacs Nisbett
(Ann Arbor, Oct. 12, 2014)
I’m reminded, as I write this review, of the scary name-that-tune tests we had to take in college music history: As the stylus descended on a mystery LP (yup, that’s what we had back then), we had to stop nibbling our pens and put them to paper to identify composer and piece.
The test at the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra concert Saturday evening at the Michigan Theater was a snap compared to those exams of yore, and way more fun. Drop the needle on any of the works on the orchestra’s “Made in the USA” bill, and, with the exception, perhaps, of the Barber Violin Concerto, you’d know in a second you were hearing American music.
You’d know, too, that you were hearing an orchestra that can both swing and sing, one that, to borrow a line from that most American of characters, Gypsy Rose Lee, is very ver-sa-tile.
Certainly, the orchestra had its work cut out for it as it set out to entertain us. A2SO Music Director Arie Lipsky’s snapshots of American music ran from familiar scenes – Gershwin’s “American in Paris,” for example, and the Barber Violin Concerto, with guest soloist Joan Kwuon making an impressive Ann Arbor debut with the orchestra; to places less often visited – Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms,” for example. “Route 66,” by the well-known University of Michigan composer Michael Daugherty, who was on hand to take a bow, completed the album with its sassy, brassy ode to the open road. Americans do love their cars!
But before we could get on the Mother Highway, it was time to pray. There are beautiful ways to do that, but surely Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms,” which opened the program, is one, with its blend of Hebraic and Christian musical traditions. One moment you’re in synagogue (or elsewhere, see below); the next, you’re in church. And sometimes, you just can’t beat hearing a boy soprano (the excellent Francesco v. Bulow Saturday evening, singing Psalm 100, “The Lord is my shepherd” with heavenly simplicity and assurance).
The piece brought together the members of the A2SO with singers from the Boychoir of Ann Arbor and the Vocal Arts Ensemble — quite the congregation, and well-prepared for worship. With the chorus way, way upstage, there were a few times when I thought the orchestra should have pulled back to let the singers soar over the instruments, but the music’s joy and its spell of peace were not impaired.
If there is vehemence enough in Bernstein’s setting of “Why do the nations rage” to make you forget Handel’s setting in “Messiah,” and darkness enough in a central orchestral interlude, elation there is aplenty in Bernstein’s setting of the psalms he chose, all sung in Hebrew. When the chorus and orchestra make a joyful noise unto the Lord, they are fully committed. It’s a feast of rhythm, complicated for singers and players and thrilling for the listener. Actually, it sounds rather like “Dance at the Gym,” from that other, more famous Bernstein work, “West Side Story.” No complaints. Everyone can worship at that altar.
From this 1965 gem – not so frequent in the concert hall because of its difficulties – Lipsky and the orchestra dipped back about a quarter century to the Barber Violin Concerto. Different time, different sound world, for sure.
And different mood. The presto perpetual-movement finale notwithstanding, the Barber is the most autumnal of concertos. That’s not just because it looks backward, to the Romantic era; it’s the material itself, the yearning it contains, rapturous at times, but always dark, even when the melody goes high to culminate in silken spider threads of sound.
Kwuon, beautifully contained in her playing, gave the concerto a throaty reading that cloaked the music in its full melancholy and highlighted its fall colors. The finale was a feast of fast fiddling and jazzy inflections (ah, we ARE in America, after all); Kwuon handled it with the utmost aplomb while communicating urgency at the same time. It was pretty thrilling.
But for sheer beauty, it was hard to beat the second movement andante. The oboe (Timothy Michling – gorgeous!) sings its plangent sorrows; the basses contribute an insistent pizzicato that tugs at the heart; and the orchestra is granted spacious elaboration before the violin finally joins to pour out its heart in shimmering phrases.
If the Barber might have confused a listener as to country of origin, there would have been no doubt with the works on the program’s second half, a nifty pairing of Daugherty’s “Route 66” with Gershwin’s “An American in Paris.”
The Daugherty is wind-in-your-hair road music, best enjoyed in a convertible with the top down as you brake for clusters of neon-lit motels in little towns along the way. The Gershwin is foot music for a jaunty, dapper walker, a flaneur out to see the sights – bonjour to baguettes, berets and bonhomie – while watching out for those pesky, tooting taxis. The brass and percussion have a blast in both, clangorous in the Daugherty, soulful and bluesy in the Gershwin, where the solo violin (concert master Kathryn Votapek) also has a star turn. The orchestra was happy to turn on a dime between the two works — no broken U turns here – and the audience was happy to let them set the course.