Detroit Symphony Orchestra Winter Festival – Leonard Slatkin conducts American Panorama – 1/6 – Gould, Tower, Bernstein, Thomson, and Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite [live webcast]

Morton Gould
Star Spangled Overture
Joan Tower
Leonard Bernstein
Three Meditations from Mass
Virgil Thomson
The Plow that Broke the Plains – Suite
Ferde Grofé
Grand Canyon Suite

Wei Yu (cello)

Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 8 February, 2019
Venue: Orchestra Hall, Detroit, Michigan

Wei Yu with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard SlatkinPhotograph: twitter @DetroitSymphonyIt’s about this time of year that the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Leonard Slatkin go into Winter Festival overdrive: six programmes over three weeks, played twice and with a webcast of each. This time Slatkin is ‘On the trail’ of a diverse selection of music by American composers.

As an exuberant opener to this concert’s second outing on this day was Morton Gould’s Star Spangled Overture – no prizes for guessing the dominant tune – music that endears itself to the listener through the composer’s skill (not least subtlety being part of the attractive mix) and his sheer enjoyment of toying with an everyday melody; and, here, the deftest of performances.

Forty-odd years after its composition, I am pleased to now catch up with Joan Tower’s Sequoia. Tower, one of several 1938 American babies who have grown to notable careers as composers – including Bolcom, Corigliano and Wuorinen – issued Sequoia as her first orchestral work, and it helped put her on the map. Easy to hear why: over seventeen absorbing minutes Sequoia is rhythmic, sonorous, powerful, sinewy, mysterious and strong of purpose, the large-orchestra scoring including a tree-load of percussion (for tattoos, thumps, rattles, glitters) for music that propels and reflects and has ‘concerto’-like aspects – bassoons put through their paces, a sweetly lyrical violin solo, trombones on parade – integrated into a symphonic whole. Joan Tower was present.

Joan Tower and Leonard SlatkinPhotograph: twitter @DetroitSymphony8 September 1971 saw (and it is strongly visual) the first performance of Leonard Bernstein’s ambitious/extravagant/eclectic/controversial Mass to inaugurate the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. Bernstein extracted Three Meditations (as far as I know for Rostropovich) for cello and chamber orchestra, essentially strings and percussion. The first is of intense and soulful declamation, with eruptive contrasts and perhaps a shadowy look-back to West Side Story, whereas No.2, at least to me, probes unfathomable depths that are then contrasted with nervous agitation and percussive threats. In the final Meditation there is exotic note-bending and rhythms, yet ending fragilely. Wei Yu (DSO principal) dug deep into the music’s potential, and the rich timbre of his cello, to being out the composer’s individuality.

Virgil Thomson’s music for the 1936 documentary The Plow that Broke the Plains makes use of folksy material, chorales, cowboy songs and jazz with a Dixie flavour for images that are more about Nature in different guises than people – sun-baked landscapes (drought) rather than rain-soaked, cattle, the arrival of the railroad, and a glimmer of hope with a harvest. Slatkin helpfully narrated from the original script to put each of the six movements in context.

Ferde Grofé is best-remembered for scoring George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, first for Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra and then for generic symphony orchestra. His original music is often in Suite form, of which the five-movement Grand Canyon (1931) is the best-known even if it has somewhat fallen off the radar.

This DSO revival was well-timed for music full of engaging ideas, cinematic content, and vivid and imaginative orchestration, scenes a-plenty, all recognisable from exposure years ago, like meeting an old friend who hasn’t kept in touch much but whose absence is due to circumstances beyond his control.

Detroit Symphony Orchestra's percussion section conducted by Leonard SlatkinPhotograph: twitter @DetroitSymphonyThe afore-mentioned (and indelible) ‘On the trail’ (third movement) begins with a violin solo played here in vibrant fashion by concertmaster Yoonshin Song – sort of Heldenleben about to ride a donkey, the animal itself trotting whimsically, galumphing Sorcerer’s Apprentice meets Respighi’s Roman Impressionism, celesta chiming in its wake, quite magical. Grofé bids us welcome with a long-built and glowing ‘Sunrise’ and follows it with ‘Painted Desert’, a variety of hues. Horn-calls initiate ‘Sunset’ (IV) and contentment ensues, to be disrupted by ‘Cloudburst’, the final section, beginning as the calm before the storm, somewhat (Richard) Straussian in effect – ominous, eerie, top-of-the-class orchestral effects – before the heavens open, raining brass and percussion (and some DSO electronic thunder?) before a panoramic ending cues a new day, and a John Williams concert in a couple of days for us webcasters … but wait, there was one more item, introduced by the conductor with humour and poignancy, In Fields by Daniel Slatkin, Leonard’s mid-twenties son, pastoral and rhapsodic music, becoming a little punchy before retreating to bucolic bliss; likeable and impressive, as was the whole concert..

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