Conductor Charles Evans and the Long Bay Symphony Orchestra began the 26th season of this remarkable orchestra Sunday September 29. In the program, Evans pointed out that this season’s “Music that Inspires” will actually include three series – “…Classical, Chamber Orchestra, and, now, Pops…”
Sunday's “Made in America” was the first of the classical series, and featured the music of five of America’s best composers. The afternoon began with Charles Ives’s “Variations on America”, dating from 1891. This work, originally written for large pipe organ, was orchestrated by William Schuman in 1963. Ives’s career was unusual for a composer, in that he made his living as a successful insurance executive, doing most of his composing whenever he could. His imagination roamed freely outside standard musical conventions, and his compositions frequently incorporated effects associated with amateur performances. In “Variations on America”, the listener is taken on a brief journey of sorts, before the actual familiar melody is heard intact. Evans and the Long Bay skillfully presented this engaging work, easily handling the shifting styles, rhythms, and textures which create the good natured jostling and near-cacophony of the community music making Ives wanted to celebrate.
William Schuman didn’t need to orchestrate the works of other composers to demonstrate his command of the orchestra, as is compellingly shown in his “New England Triptych” for orchestra, which is based on the works of the early American composer William Billings. Evans and the LBS held the audience’s attention with their beautiful presentation of the music’s wide differences of mood and orchestral effect. Especially powerful was the beginning of the second of the three pieces. A solemn snare drum figure, played slowly and quietly with snares off, is soon followed by a mournful line shared by a bassoon and an English horn, and moments after that, muted strings come in almost like a halo of sound. An orchestra of lesser caliber than the Long Bay simply couldn’t make passages like these work.
Samuel Barber’s “Essay No. 1 for Orchestra” is closest to the classical tradition, and it is interesting to note that of the five composers presented today, he is the only one who did not have any connection to popular music. Program annotator Richard Rodda points out that Barber, having been awarded the Prix de Rome and a Pulitzer Traveling Scholarship, spent much time in Europe in the 1920s and 30s where he met musical luminaries of that time. Rodda goes on to describe the overall sense of this work, a single movement divided into “…two large paragraphs…” in which Barber’s fine musical talent is abundantly evident. Evans and the Long Bay clearly showed the contrast between the somber colors of the slower first section, and the lively, sparkly passages of the second, in which individual sections of the orchestra, and a number of soloists, were completely convincing. The work’s final passages present references to earlier material, and the ending is finally quiet, fading away, illustrating Barber’s classical sense of balance.
Although Aaron Copland was born and raised in New York, some of his best known works are about cowboys and the West. Richard Rodda tells us that Copland uses two folk tunes in “Buckaroo Holiday” from “Rodeo”, and that “…a cowgirl, tough of hide but tender of heart, searches for – and finds - a man…” H-m-m…how did they accomplish that in those pre-computer days? With the telegraph? No matter. Evans and the LBS did a terrific job with the jaunty, irregular rhythms, punchy chords, and spot-on percussion whacks. All the sections of the orchestra were first rate in creating these humorous effects, and especially engaging were the “stop-time” passages, where a short phrase was punctuated by an edge-of-your-chair silence, until the next phrase was played. Add to this that these passages were scattered all throughout the orchestra, and played with absolute precision, and you have a vivid illustration of just how good Evans and the LBS are. This delightful work ended the first half of the concert.
There’s no question that George Gershwin’s music displays characteristics of both the classical and popular veins. His splendid Piano Concerto in F was the entire second half of today’s program. The featured soloist was Philip Powell, chairman of the Music Department at Coastal Carolina University.
This wonderful work follows the traditional fast-slow-fast three movement plan for concertos, but the content of each movement is distinctly Gershwin. For example, the three ideas which open the first movement – a percussion flourish, followed by a Charleston-rhythm passage, followed soon by the entrance of the piano playing a somber theme, which moments later is re-harmonized and cast in a different light. Or, the second movement – Gershwin’s comments in the program tell us he wanted to create a “…poetic, nocturnal atmosphere…referred to as the American blues…” which really can be heard in the mournful trumpet solo along with the quiet bluesy chords - or the third, characterized by Gershwin as “…an orgy of rhythms…keeping the same pace throughout” - a driving, relentless, portrait of big city life. Any place in these movements will illustrate Gershwin’s talent.
Evans , Powell, and the LBS have played this work before, and today’s performance showed their love of it. Powell’s playing was simply superb. His beautiful phrasing and dynamic shaping of the melodies lets a listener hear how things are really supposed to be. In passages where the piano is somewhat covered by the orchestra, and then emerges with a brilliant flourish, Powell’s effortless technique presents these as what they are – part of a long, on-going line. Evans drew forth from the LBS the same effects – beautiful solos, wonderful section work, all integrated with the piano for a seamless performance which brought the audience to its feet with applause and cheers.
Coming soon: Chris Mann, October 19, and The German Romantic Spirit, November 3.
William Hamilton taught music for 28 years in the Music Department of coastal Carolina University. He composed the music for CCU’s Alma Mater, wrote incidental music for several plays, and still activelhy plays jazz with the group U ‘n I, and CCU’s faculty jazz ensemble.