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With eight acoustic shells, 115 musicians, and lots of percussion, the W-P Auditorium simply boomed when Steven Smith drove the BMC Orchestra in a program of music by Richard Strauss, Daniel McCarthy, and Hector Berlioz. On paper it looked great but attendance was spotty. These afternoon programs usually start close to the published 3:00 p.m. time and always begin with "The Star-Spangled Banner.' As mentioned in a previous article this "audience ensemble" has been getting better with each concert, and it was pretty good on this day, but those church ladies are really rattling that high note at the end. Makes me nervous....
This program opened with Richard Strauss' picturesque tone poem "Don Juan," composed during 1888/89, and premiered November 11, 1889, in Weimar. Up to this point, his compositions bear a certain familiarity with works of Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Brahms, but this piece, written shortly after Strauss met Mahler, signified the start of a new era in orchestral music because of unprecedented technical demands. Strauss was clearly moving away from the more strict and formal traditions associated with symphonic structure and was going for more "novel procedures and an irreverent style." This work blends the rondo and sonata form and has an exuberance or flamboyance not heard before. It is based on Nikolaus Lenau's 1844 version of Don Juan and is widely viewed as a successful portrayal of the story. This performance shimmered through the sonic drama with Smith's vigorous upsweeping baton. The ending is soft and abrupt, which we aren't expecting. Nor were we ready for the dozen or so geese feeding on the adjacent lawn, offering an occasional honk!
While the stage was reset, somebody shooed away the geese in time for the world premiere of Gothica, a bassoon concerto written in 2004 by Daniel McCarthy for Barrick Stees. This is a program work in five movements, each with descriptive title: "Flying Buttresses," "Dark, Heavy Wood," "Lancet: Through Stained, Lead Glass," "Clerestory: Obscured Light," and "Stone Cold Height." Stees is Assistant Principal Bassoonist of the Cleveland Orchestra and a member of the Solaris Woodwind Quintet, and he teaches at the Cleveland Institute of Music and the University of Akron. Composer McCarthy is Chair of Composition and Theory at the University of Akron School of Music and Director of Composition at Interlochen Arts Camp.
The composer writes: "The five movements of Gothica depict various aspects of Gothic cathedral architecture. The 'cathedral' aspect is represented in a fairly large orchestra for a bassoon concerto with triple winds, a large brass section, timpani and four percussion." In general, the work exploits all the instrumental techniques – upper register, lower register, virtuosic flourishes, and driving rhythms – while engaging the soloist in both ensemble and solo roles.
Stees used an elaborate harness to support the instrument; I mention this because we don't often hear a bassoon while the player is standing! On stage, he was always ready for the next thing and was, of course, always conducting some kind of voodoo with his reed. Listen: all these double reed players are one 12-step program away from long-term managed care due to the OCD issue with reeds plus all that pressure in their heads! (Most of them would agree with that.) Clearly a virtuoso player, Stees attacked the big scales written outside of meter (like a flourish with "27" written across the top) with relish and confidence. In the fourth movement, there was an interesting percussion vamp, and the bassoon often tracked with the oboe or other reeds in orchestra. The sound of vibes proved a good partner in the instrumental mix. In the middle of the fifth movement, there was a great Latin vamp that gave the image of film score music.
I must admit this is the first bassoon concerto I have ever heard, but I don't think a gothic cathedral would have been my choice of a theme. Beyond that, I understand the challenge. It's a low double reed, and if nothing else there is concern for all that clacking of keys. Everyone hit the marks, the sound was great, the piece is very nice, and Smith's direction of the orchestra was a clinic. When the soloist played, the orchestra was well under the dynamic envelope. Very nice work!
During intermission, I made some notes that speculate about Smith's conducting gestures and patterns. There are times when I think he is mixing a salad. When I think of a downbeat, I imagine the stick moving downward, yet from a distance there was the illusion that he was in fact sweeping upward for the strong beat, as though he were pulling from the bottom of the stick pattern. Apart from that, he's clear about what he wants and has good ideas. And it never matters what I think – it matters only that the musicians understand what he wants. Right?
In the second half, resurgent geese headed for cover under darkening skies as we heard the Symphonie fantastique, sub-titled épisode de la vie d'un artiste, by Hector Berlioz (1803-69). It was written in early 1830, the same year Berlioz won the Prix de Rome and just six years after Beethoven's 9th Symphony. The premiere was December 5 of the same year, with Franz Liszt in attendance. Immediately popular, it confirmed the composer's reputation as a dazzling, spectacular and innovative painter of aural scenery. This is another program work setting forth the image of "Episodes in the life of an artist" or "A day in the life" and giving all the various events a soundscape platform unified by the idée fixe, a theme that recurs and is transformed in each movement.
The programmatic idea here is the artist's obsession with the woman he adores. The music and the program notes spell out his dreams and fantasies in dramatic form. There is flux of passion and unaccountable joys and sorrow experienced before he saw his beloved, volcanic love that his beloved suddenly inspired in him, a two-movement opium dream involving murder and execution, and a macabre and turbulent "Witches Sabbath" for the finale.
The orchestration plays to BMC's strength, namely an ensemble as large as you need with plenty of depth in all chairs. Here the orchestra performed with harps, bells, and cor Anglais (English horn) in ways previously associated with opera. Berlioz also used an Eb clarinet for a shrieking presentation of the beloved's image in the finale and – simultaneously – four timpani, to represent distant thunder – new "roles" for these instruments. Overall, there was nice balance throughout the orchestra. At 4:35 p.m., in the middle of the third movement, rain started. During the fourth movement, we heard thunder – real, distant thunder.
Afterward, I asked Smith if the work was particularly difficult for a student-based orchestra. He said "Yes," but only in the context that most of the musicians had not played or heard the piece before. "Some sections of the string parts are hard," he said, "but overall the hardest part about preparation is that students haven't seen or heard it before.”
And, of course, dealing with the geese – because they're not in the score.