Springfield Symphony Orchestra spotlights American composers (review)

Nov 7 2017

Rhodes and his colleagues tore into Gershwin’s boisterous, sassy Cuban Overture, a riot of melodies, countermelodies, and interjections riding on a hive of percussion.

Maestro Kevin Rhodes and the Springfield Symphony Orchestra presented an all-American program to an audience of 1,572 Saturday evening in Symphony Hall, playing music by Bernstein, Copland, Gershwin, and Lowell Liebermann.

Rhodes and his colleagues tore into Gershwin’s boisterous, sassy Cuban Overture, a riot of melodies, countermelodies, and interjections riding on a hive of percussion.

Next up, guest cello soloist Julian Schwarz joined Rhodes and company for the East Coast premiere (and only the second performance) of Lowell Liebermann’s Cello Concerto, Op. 132, commissioned by Schwarz and a consortium of orchestras and premiered last week in Toledo, OH.

In pre-performance remarks, Schwarz made much mention of Liebermann’s accessibility, his unique voice and the enduring quality of his music. Indeed, Liebermann, at age 56, is prolific and frequently performed.

The new Cello Concerto bore Liebermann’s hallmark neo-romantic tonality, and skillful, imaginative orchestration, casting the solo cello in expressive duos with orchestral soloists (piccolo, trombone, English horn), always preserving an excellent balance between cello and ensemble.

The work’s three movements traversed the gamut of things the cello is good at – rhapsodic melodies soaring over filmy orchestra textures, creepy sul ponticello effects, and loopy glissandi. Its structure was clearly conceived and communicated by soloist and orchestra, from the working-out of the opening low C#-E-D melodic cell to the piece’s eventual harmonic plateau of D-flat Major.

There were marvelous constructions in the first movement – at one point, Schwarz’s capering triplets gradually infected the whole orchestra, sparking a lively tarantella. In the slow movement, sequences of lamenting melodic cello cascades descended restlessly above pulsing Wagnerian chord progressions.

The frantic, abrupt third movement seemed over before it began. Though strung together of lovely moments, well-crafted, and passionately played by Schwarz, Liebermann’s Concerto still paled by comparison to the enduring masterworks of the repertoire by Haydn, Elgar, Dvorak, Schumann, Shostakovich – even Prokofiev. Schwarz responded to the audience’s standing ovation by playing the Prelude from J.S. Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G. Its perfect architecture, simplicity and profundity, and Schwarz’s intimate, humble performance of it cast an even longer shadow on the foregoing concerto.

The concert’s second half began with Copland’s drunken, playful El Salon Mexico, and concluded with an uproarious account of Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. Both works showcased the excellence of the SSO musicians – Copland’s arcane, complex meters, and Bernstein’s virtuosic, vivacious writing challenged and rewarded the musicians simultaneously.

Superb solo efforts were turned in by new principal clarinetist Christopher Cullen, as well as principal trumpeter Tom Bergeron, and principal oboist Nancy Dimock.

The Symphonic Dances marked the return of Real Time Concert Notes, texts sent to the cell-phones of patrons sitting in the uppermost balcony that connected the live performance with scenes from the musical.   Another experiment in process this season, according to Maestro Rhodes, is breaking with the white-tie-and-tux tradition of concert attire. Saturday evening, the men wore “basic black” and the women “casual black” with “splashes of color.” Rhodes quipped that he had always wondered if, in order to successfully play classical music, the orchestra members had to dress “…like the guys on the Titanic.” Saturday clearly proved this was not the case.



May 2024