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Mention mixed media in the context of classical music and my critical antennae go on the alert. Is this another dubious attempt to expand classical audiences by "dumbing down" the presentation or the repertory? Will the composer's intent be sacrificed for "bells and whistles"? With a load of reservations and questions, I attended the "Prelude Program" and the "Meet the Artists Program" as well as the concert performance of "An American Celebration" in Greensboro's War Memorial Auditorium on October 16. The Greensboro Symphony Orchestra's guest conductor was Thomas Sleeper, and the "soloist" was James Westwater, who describes himself as a photochoreographer.
Westwater defines what he does as combining art forms, coordinating photography with classical music selected for its "breath, depth, diversity and power." He has a repertory of eleven pieces, three of which were given in Greensboro. His pieces are not meant to be "the definitive meaning the composer intended" but rather to "convey his own feelings and attitude about the subject matter." He has a preference for using landscapes. In the darkened hall, three closely joined 10 x 14 foot screens descended. All three could be and were used for panoramic views of mountain ranges, canyons and mesas or montages of individual flowers, waterfalls, rural scenes and cityscapes. Unlike presentations such as Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky , in which the orchestra is in lock step with a film, Westwater's performances are more analogous to a dancer's interaction with live music. He is posted at the back of the hall and controls the projection of the slides in co-ordination with the score.
Westwater's "American Fanfare" was presented with the dramatic music of Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man," which resounded dramatically with just percussion and brass. Sleeper's standard interpretation was marred by several clunkers in the brass. Their embouchures must have soon warmed up because this wasn't a problem for the rest of the concert. The juxtaposition of vast landscape panoramas was very effective but the montages of small details of nature were less so.
For the "Wilderness Suite," Westwater chose music from movements one and three of Copland's Tender Land Suite and from the first movement from The Red Pony . Panoramas of the Rocky Mountains and the Cascade Range were set to music from the opera while the sequence for the Grand Canyon utilized music from the film score most effectively.
Limited to local performance is Westwater's "Images of Greensboro," commissioned by the GSO in 1993. Set to music from Copland's Our Town , this was mostly an effective montage of familiar local attractions - Guilford Courthouse Battleground, Blandwood Mansion, the Natural Science Center, Woolworth's, scenes from local parks and college campuses, and a number of statues that were unknown to me.
It was surprising that neither of the program's two major and highly colorful orchestral scores was subjected to photochoreography. Conductor Sleeper showed no affinity for Morpheus in his direction of rhythmically vital and wonderfully stylish standard interpretations of William Schuman's New England Triptych and Ferde Grofé's much abused Grand Canyon Suite . Both works gave a plethora of orchestra principals the chance to shine, and all embraced it with relish. The Schuman piece is a very free orchestration of three choral pieces by America's first true composer, William Billings. Timpanist William Congdon gloried in his extended solos in the opening "Be Glad Then, America." This introduction was followed by the trombones and trumpets in a free setting of the chorale before the return of the timpani. The strings, and especially the violas and cellos, played with a fine warm tone. The horns were excellent in their subtle part, and the low brass notes in the coda were wonderful. "When Jesus Wept" opened with a snare drum and had glorious solo and ensemble work from the entire woodwind section, particularly bassoonist Carol L. Bernstorf, oboist Cara Fish, and Ashley Barrett, English horn. The inner voices got rare direct exposure in a beautiful melody played by just the second violins and violas. All the woodwinds were swept up in the virtuosic "Chester," with extraordinarily precise rapid sections. Here, flutist Debra Reuter-Pivetta and piccolo player Alicia Chapman joined the ranks of the other soloists.
Everyone brings extra-musical baggage to any performance of Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite . Many find its all too literal musical imagery to be just too much treacle. With the best will in the world, I found coarse scoring for full orchestra at the end of "Sunrise," and the beginning of another section is as bad as anything in Respighi's "Roman Festivals." Most listeners' problems stem from the widespread use of parts of "On the Trail" as background music for cartoons, films, commercials, etc. Sleeper brought out the best from the orchestra with outstanding playing from every section and the principals. Concertmaster John Fadial limned a jackass in sound with his suggestive bowing before the violin's bridge, a centerpiece of "On the Trail." Beth Vanderborgh had a fine cello solo in the last movement, "Cloudburst." Nancy Johnston had a number of important celesta and piano solos. "Sunset" opened with an orotund horn solo by Robert Campbell, and his section excelled in its extensive role throughout that movement.
Asked after the concert if he had been active in the area, guest conductor Thomas Sleeper replied "no, but his Cherokee ancestors might have been!" The Oklahoma native praised the quality and responsiveness of the orchestra. This was his first public concert with the GSO but he has made a film music recording with them.