ASO's pops performance does justice to event's intent and to composers' works


Arundel Live

April 11, 2002|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In his 1855 anthology Leaves of Grass, poet Walt Whitman told the world of the "varied carols" he had heard America singing.

Nearly a century and a half later, his countrymen are still at it.

That message came through loud and clear at Maryland Hall Friday evening, when conductor Leslie B. Dunner's Annapolis Symphony Orchestra presented a program of American music headlined by Ferde Grofe's Grand Canyon Suite, an exercise in home-grown post-romanticism if ever there was one.

Selections from Leonard Bernstein's film score for On the Town and Duke Ellington's dance suite The River provided additional samples of the sassy yet elegant voices of our composers.

Rounding out the program was an appearance by world-class saxophonist Gary Louie, a Severna Park resident, in an arrangement of Pablo de Sara- sate's Carmen Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra, set for the soloist's expressive wind instrument.

The concert was immensely likable on several counts.

Most notably, it was a pops concert designed the way pops concerts used to be designed.

Nowadays, the pops designation often indicates a "crossover" affair in which the orchestra is host to a visiting artist whose home idiom is light-years removed from the classical concert hall. The point on such occasions isn't to lighten the symphonic repertoire, but to do away with it.

Dunner, by contrast, made no apologies for the symphony orchestra or the repertoire it champions.

Grofe's Grand Canyon Suite is the sort of work that falls through the cracks when Top 40 singers, country music artists and show biz personalities show up to monopolize an orchestra's time when the "pops" sign is hung out.

Grofe's five-movement tone poem - composed for the Paul Whiteman Band, which gave the premiere performance of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue - affords great opportunities for an orchestra. Its sunrises, sunsets, painted deserts, and clip-clopping trail rides are full of suggestive colors and harmonic moods. Each was handled deftly by Dunner and his musicians.

The performance was full of character, from the sheen of the strings in the "Sunset" interlude to the evocative brass that created such eerie reflections in the "Painted Desert."

As always in Dunner's choreographically charged conducting, there was motion aplenty. The donkey descended into the canyon in vividly realized fitful steps, while the "Cloudburst" rushed in on a kinetic whoosh of sound.

Slinky changes of tempo in Bernstein's On the Town were atmospheric to a fault, especially in the languid "Lonely Town" sequence.

Deft touches also were applied to Ellington's The River. The "Spring" interlude opened and flowered with admirable intensity, while the "Giggling Rapids" surged and swayed with abandon, despite some gummy articulation in the hyperactive jazz riffs.

International elements came together nicely in Carmen Fantasy, a Spanish violinist's arrangement of excerpts from a French opera set in Spain and played by a superior American artist.

Louie's saxophone proved a worthy exponent of Sarasate's sizzling send-up of Georges Bizet's immortal melodies. Not only was the sax an evocative echo of the Andalusian gypsy's sultry mezzo-soprano voice, but his swashbuckling playing smacked of the flair the Spanish call duende.


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