It’s that time of year again. Orchestras, professional and volunteer, are wrapping up their seasons. Two of Seattle’s many community orchestras finished their seasons this weekend. The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra – University of Washington conducting student Geoffrey Larson’s creation – closed their inaugural season with a concert titled “Just Dance.” The next day, George Shangrow, Orchestra Seattle, and the Seattle Chamber Singers ended their 2009/2010 series of concerts with a jazz (and Bernstein) inspired program that featured two works by Washington composers and choruses from Leonard Bernstein’s incidental music to the Lark.
Larson and his fledgling ensemble had the better program of the two, while Shangrow conducted the better performance. Larson’s bill featured Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin; Sibelius’ Valse Triste; Liadov’s Eight Russian Folk Songs; and Debussy’s Petite Suite. Smartly, he opened the program with Ravel and closed it with Debussy. These two French icons – and their respective suites – are natural concert companions. Both performances sparkled, albeit slightly studied. With Larson’s background as a clarinetist, it isn’t surprising that the wind playing was sharp throughout.
Not as well-known as the Debussy or Ravel, Anatoly Liadov’s Eight Russian Folks Songs were the surprise hit of the program. The notes for the piece pointed out that because Rimsky-Korsakov’s success in large-scale orchestral works intimidated Liadov, he focused instead on orchestral miniatures and songs. His Eight Russian Folksongs are engaging, descriptive, colorful miniatures. There are hints of Dvorak in Village Dance Song; skittering, racing strings in Humorous Song; and an aching viola solo (played beautifully by Jessica Winter) in Plaintive Song.
The next day, Orchestra Seattle concluded its season with a concert dubbed “All That Jazz.” Anyone who regularly hears Orchestra Seattle knows George Shangrow (the orchestra’s music director) routinely presents novel or unexpected programs. Both the novel and the unexpected were present in this concert.
Seattle has been in the throes of celebrating the 20 year anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s death. The city-wide festival – Seattle Celebrates Bernstein – packages Seattle’s various musical and stage tributes to Lenny in one, handy schedule of events. For their part, the Seattle Chamber Singers offered a rare performance of the choruses from Bernstein’s incidental music to Lillian Hellman’s play The Lark.
Before Shangrow conducted a glowing performance of these choruses – helped immensely by Joshua Haberman’s smooth counter-tenor voice — he asked the audience to consider why The Lark choruses, which were written in the 1950’s, seemed harder to grasp as music than the other two pieces on the program which were written in 2007 and 2010.
Shangrow is right to wonder. As I listened to the choruses, images of Bernstein’s Kaddish Symphony, Chichester Psalms, Mass, and even the debacle 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue come to mind. But these pieces are just the beginning. One could hear Bernstein as composer; conductor; pop culture icon; musical and political rebel; homosexual; Jew; and steward of hundreds of years of musical history. Leonard Bernstein’s impact on music in America comes from his competing identities which he never could satisfactorily reconcile. These competing identities — most of which are at least hinted at in the choruses — are what make Leonard Bernstein and his music interesting and just as confounding.
But Bernstein’s choruses were only the beginning of Shangrow’s latest musical tour. Before intermission, Huntley Beyer’s song cycle The Turns of a Girl was given its world premiere; the second half featured Brent Edstrom’s lengthy Concerto for Jazz Piano and Orchestra which also received a premiere, a west coast premiere.
Neither Edstrom nor Beyer’s piece wowed me, but neither outright disappointed me either. Two of the reasons these pieces were easier to enjoy then Bernstein’s are Beyer’s cinematic vernacular and Edstrom’s liberal use of hooks and improvisation.
It was perhaps a mistake for Beyer to note that he “aspires to Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs.” It is a goal that sets expectations high. The six songs that make up The Turns of a Girl aren’t in the same category. Strauss’ songs are heaven bound, while Beyer’s deal with a girl becoming a woman. Beyer’s orchestration was straightforward, often predictable, but easy on the ears. Jessica Robins Milanese is one of the strongest singers I have heard with Orchestra Seattle in some time. Her voice easily climbed over the orchestra, reaching every nook and cranny of First Free Methodist Church.
Almost an hour long, Edstrom’s Concerto for Jazz Piano and Orchestra wilted under its own length. In his concerto, Edstrom bridges the short distance between his Jazz and classical music backgrounds. The piece is set in six movements, each supported by different Jazz influences. Six movements are too much for this piece. Three would have done just fine. Even one would have sufficed. I could imagine each movement being played as a stand-alone concert piece or in arrangements other than the full concerto.
This isn’t to say Edstrom’s piece wasn’t entertaining, or that he and Orchestra Seattle’s performance was unappealing. On the contrary, the orchestra and Edstrom breezed through the piece’s toe tapping passages with apparent ease. However, there is just too much music and not enough direction and cohesion across movements. I was never really sure what Edstrom was trying to achieve or where he was taking the listener. The piece is a journey without direction (or very little of it) with the only goal being simple, unadulterated entertainment. If only every piece of music could be this uncomplicated and fun.