Sunday, February 13, 2011

SBSO's "American Valentine" better than a box of chocolates

Review by Janet I. Martineau
What is better, by far, than a box of chocolates for a Valentine’s Day gift?
Saturday night’s “An American Valentine” concert, performed by the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra at the Temple Theatre.
OK, first I need to admit that when this concert was announced,  my heart skipped a beat. Bernstein, Barber, Copland and Dvorak on one very favorite composers all on one bill!?! And then toss in a new work by Saginaw’s own Catherine McMichael, whose growing resume of work never fails to enchant me. 
Add to that pieces....”West Side Story,” “Adagio for Strings,” “Appalachian Spring” with its Shaker “Simple Gifts” hymn, and New World Symphony with its refrains of “Goin’ Home” and an English horn solo to die for. These are my favorite pieces by those  favorite composers ..and McMichael’s  “Symphonic Dreams” beckoned further by its title alone.
All the orchestra and its maestro Brett Mitchell had to do was deliver on the goods....and oh my goodness did they ever deliver on the goods.
Collectively every single section of the orchestra got its moment to shine, but for my money the night belonged to the woodwinds, in particular English horn player Ellen Sudia-Coudron. But wait...those strings just ached and  shimmered in the Barber...the brass was so bold in the Dvorak...the percussionists bombastic in the Bernstein.
And ya gotta love a conductor who follows the full-of-energy, sassy, jazzy, cocky “West Side Story” overture with the quiet and introspective “Adagio for Strings” that just builds builds from the deepest of the strings to a fevered high pitch of angst so intense one fears the violin strings will snap and break.
The title of the program, of course, refers to the fact that of the five composers, four are American. And Dvorak, a Czech, wrote his Symphony No. 9 (From the New World) during a three-year visit to the United States in the late 1800s.
The McMichael piece, commissioned to celebrate the 75th anniversaries of the Midland and Saginaw Bay orchestras, is her tone poem to Midland architect Alden B. Dow and Saginaw’s tall trees of the lumber era and served both themes ever so solidly,
So in one evening the music visited waring gangs in  1950s New York City, a 19th century young couple living on a farm in the Appalachians, the “new world” of Native Americans and Iowa and plantation songs, contemporary Midland and lumber era Saginaw in Michigan,  and, as Mitchell said, wherever each of us wanted to go with the Adagio (for many of us, it continues to evoke memories of the President Kennedy funeral in the 1960s).
What a marvelous journey across the landscape and through the years.
Mitchell also noted that in his career of conducting many premieres of pieces, never had he experienced the pleasure of having the composer involved also helping play it  -- as McMichael did, on the piano, in her “Symphonic Dreams.” Yet another musical chocolate served during the rich evening.

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