Yesterday we capped a busy day (at church till mid-afternoon for a special event, followed by—oh, joy!—flu shots) with our second Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra concert of the year. I'm greatly enjoying Chris Wilkins' approach to concert programming: he chooses a good blend of old and new, familiar and unknown, comfortable and challenging. Well, just barely challenging, but that's okay; I prefer my musical challenges on a smaller scale and with explanation, as with Bernard Rands' Memo 8, which came to mind when I was pondering "challenging." That was one of my favorite Eastman concert experiences, and I would love to hear it performed again, but I don't see that happening; even a Google search nets little, and my favorite oboist has gone Medieval—not that I mind that! Ah, well—I have my recording. But I digress greatly.Last night's concert showed Wilkins' programming strengths and his willingness to venture into non-traditional concert territory. The theme was Abraham Lincoln, and the program a collaboration with the Orange County History Center.
First I must say that there were several oboe solos during the evening, and I am much encouraged about our new Principal Oboe, Jamie Strefeler. I wasn't particularly impressed at the opening concert, in addition to being shocked at the loss of Jared Houser, whose sound I love. But last night was pleasing indeed.
The program opened with seven movements from Ernst Bacon's Ford's Theatre; A Few Glimpses of Easter Week 1865. Bacon was a contemporary of Virgil Thompson and Aaron Copland; both the composer and the work were unknown to me, but the music was enjoyable and worth hearing again. Speaking of repetition, I wasn't looking forward that much to hearing the second work, Beethoven's Symphony No. 5. Not that I don't love Beethoven's Fifth, but it is heard so frequently that one tends to have only the best performances in one's mind, and thus it's too easy to be critical. Nonetheless, the OPO did a creditable job, and it really was enjoyable. Are you wondering what Beethoven has to do with Abraham Lincoln? So was I. It turns out that this symphony was born just a few months before Lincoln, and its themes are appropriate to the struggles and turmoil of Lincoln's time.
Side note: Although the volume was sometimes impressive, as it should be for such a piece, it was not painful, so I don't know what was going on with my ears at the last concert.
Did I mention pain? Alas, that was my first impression of the second half of the program, which is sad because it was a very cool production, and most of it was great. They performed four works in succession, as movements of a single piece (i.e. no applause in between): Jay Ungar's Ashokan Farewell, Stella Sung's Lincoln's Battle (commissioned by the OPO for this concert), the CIVIL warS: Interlude No. 1 by Philip Glass, and Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait. The last two works were accompanied by large-screen photographs of the era arranged by photochoreographer James Westwater. Porter was distracted a bit by being pretty certain some of the photos were Matthew Brady's fakes, and I spent more time thinking about my own 19th century ancestors than Lincoln, but the music/art combination was still effective.
Back to the pain. I've loved Ashokan Farewell since I first heard it on Ken Burns' Civil War PBS production, I loved it when Janet performed it on violin back in her Suzuki days, and I love it every time my mp3 player randomly chooses to play the free download I found too long ago to remember. I was not able to find that source again, but you can hear part of the original Ashokan Farewell here, and some of the lovely Harpsong version here. In each case, click on the arrow to the left of the title. This is the melody I—and I daresay most of the audience—know and love; this is what Porter was expecting, (albeit in an orchestral version) when he leaned over to me, just prior to the first notes, and whispered how much he was looking forward to hearing it.
Alas. That is not what we heard. I was surprised, even shocked, by the intensity of my reaction. Normally I'm pretty easy to please in a concert, tend not to notice any but the most blatant flaws, and dislike criticism of a performance because it diminishes my own enjoyment. But this hurt. It set my teeth on edge and formed a tight knot in my stomach that wasn't eased until several notes into the next piece. I'm not saying that concertmaster Tamas Kocsis was wrong in his interpretation. Ungar describes Ashokan Farewell as "in the style of a Scottish lament," and I know that part of the art and musicianship of Celtic music is in the ornamentation and in taking a tune and doing different things with it. I may be totally wrong in my objections. But to me, this felt like bait and switch. As if I went to a concert expecting Handel's Messiah and found it set to a salsa rhythm. It just felt wrong; the style didn't fit with the sense I have of the piece. Things got better when the orchestra joined in, but that was not sufficient to dispel the shock.
Fortunately, Stella Sung never disappoints. I first encountered her music when the Florida Symphony Youth Orchestra played her Orlando Suite in 1997 and am always excited when I see one of her compositions on the program. Because of the subject matter, Lincoln's Battle is darker and more difficult, but was still a relief after Ashokan Farewell. The Philip Glass piece was also new to me, but definitely a pleasure to listen to, and Copland's Lincoln Portrait is always powerful.And thanks to the return of Standard Time, we were able to attend the concert and still get to bed by 10:00. :)