Detroit Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin – Serenades by Dvořák & Elgar and Mozart’s Prague Symphony – Maya Beiser plays Mohammed Fairouz’s Desert Sorrows Cello Concerto [live webcast]

Serenade in D minor for Wind Instruments, Op.44
Serenade in E minor for Strings, Op.20
Symphony No.38 in D, K504 (Prague)
Mohammed Fairouz
Desert Sorrows, Concerto for Cello and Orchestra [commissioned by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra for Maya Beiser: world premiere performances]

Maya Beiser (cello)

Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 16 January, 2016
Venue: Orchestra Hall, Detroit, Michigan

Maya BeiserPhotograph: ioulexThe third outing for this programme if the first for it in Orchestra Hall. It found the Detroit Symphony serenading us with diverse scoring from Dvořák and Elgar. The former opus – for pairs of oboes, clarinets and bassoons, three horns, cello, double bass and contrabassoon – begins with a flourish for a march-like movement, here enjoyably bouncy; then a lilting Minuet with a livelier and droll Trio, a nocturnal samba-rhythm slow movement and a vigorous and happy Finale that issues a full-circle return to the martial strides of the very opening before a race to the finishing post. With devoted and sensitive playing throughout – shapely, agile and fully responsive to the baton- and podium-less Leonard Slatkin’s well-judged tempos, phrasing and balances – this was a civilised and gladdening treat.

Edward Elgar’s three-movement Serenade (the DSO strings reduced in numbers for something sinewy in timbre and with airy textures) is a gentle piece with a heartfelt Larghetto as its centrepiece. From Slatkin, long a champion of British music, the Allegro piacevole was a little more agitated than can be the case and the Finale carefree and ending peacefully, with that which comes in-between spaciously eloquent and tender, bathed rather than swamped in nostalgia.

The concert’s second half opened with Mozart’s wonderful ‘Prague’ Symphony, music of majesty, poignancy and wit, with flutes, trumpets and timpani making their first appearance in this particular gathering. Slatkin and the DSO did it proud – with clarity of utterance (excellently crisp drums), ebullience, expressive curves, a very affecting slow movement (with short grace notes, rightly so), and – there being no Minuet – a Finale that chuckled along and which went no faster than it needed to.

These familiar roads led to something new, a Cello Concerto entitled ‘Desert Sorrows’ by Mohammed Fairouz, dedicated to the “precious Faisal Al-Juburi with everlasting loyalty, respect and love.” Fairouz, born in 1985, is an “Arab American” and lives in New York City. He has studied at the New England Conservatory and the Curtis Institute and can claim Gunther Schuller and György Ligeti among his mentors.

Mohammed FairouzPhotograph: Samantha West

The three movements of ‘Desert Sorrows’ are:

  • Yowm Ad-Dīn (The Day of Reckoning)
  • Al-Maccaber (The Graves)
  • Jannat: Saud Al-Faisal In Memoriam (Heavens)

    Written for Maya Beiser, who played as if entranced, there is nothing in ‘Desert Sorrows’ that is ground-breaking, not even in its vivid exoticism, although the dramatic opening is arresting. The soloist is amplified, and while the orchestra is large (including harp, piano and percussion), such usage seems to me a dereliction of the consummate craft of a composer being able to balance things naturally from within rather than relying on artificial means. Maybe this accounted for a larger-than-life and edgy-sounding cello, which was anyway rather forward in the mix.

    That ‘Desert Sorrows’ lasts 32 minutes is a statistic, that it is too long is an opinion, the carousing first movement not interesting enough to justify its repetitions, although the slow movement is soulful, if unremittingly intense and seeming to be never-ending. The last one, quick and lighter, is perhaps the best, and stays in the memory, but there is (again) little variety.

    Overall ‘Desert Sorrows’ is likeable and listener-friendly (a fact, not a criticism) if offering little to return to – but then, in a similar vein, Bloch’s powerful Schelomo and – for high-kicking dance-steps and a multi-coloured palette – Khachaturian’s Gayaneh are both already out there…

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