Tulsa Symphony's concert salutes diverse American music
BY JAMES D. WATTS JR. World Scene Writer
Monday, February 11, 2013
2/11/13 at 6:26 AM
Usually when an orchestra puts on a concert of American music, it's a matter of rounding up the usual suspects - a sampling of Aaron Copland, a piano piece by George Gershwin, a bit of Leonard Bernstein.
Thankfully, the Tulsa Symphony took some musical roads less traveled for the concert it had titled "Red," presented Saturday at the Tulsa PAC, with guest conductor Timothy Myers. And it made for a uniquely thrilling evening of music that was American to its core.
By that I mean, just as America itself was formed out of a synthesis of diverse cultures and new ideas, what made this music American was the way the three compositions on the program brought together disparate musical elements in new, challenging and satisfying ways.
Take Mark O'Connor, the fiddler and composer who, along with violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins, was the guest artist for the concert. O'Connor first mastered the complete vernacular of American fiddle music, then began incorporating that knowledge into compositions such as his Double Violin Concerto, which he and Hall-Tompkins performed Saturday.
The three movements are titled - "Swing," "Midnight on the Dance Room Floor" and "Dixieland" - but those are descriptions of the mood the music creates rather than descriptions of the sounds one hears.
Yes, the muted brass passages in the third movement call to mind for a few moments a Dixieland band, and the dark, gently unsettled music of the second movement speaks to the end of an evening and perhaps even a relationship. But the actual music unfolds in ever widening ways, never relying on easily recognizable elements such as jazz melodies or dance rhythms to guide the listener along.
And that ties into the dual violin work of O'Connor and Hall-Tompkins, that had the spark and excitement and risk of improvisation (although a good deal of what the two soloists played was fully composed).
O'Connor and Hall-Tompkins returned for an encore that extended one of those "cutting contest" passages from the concerto, with the two exchanging dueling virtuoso passages (although O'Connor got the crowd on his side by adding a touch of "Take Me Back to Tulsa" at one point).
Charles Ives is best-known for compositions that break all sorts of rules, capturing the often uneasy mix of American life in all its joyous, if sometimes maddening, cacophony. But his Symphony No. 1, written right at the turn of the 20th century, is an almost conventional work in comparison to such things as his Symphony No. 4 and Piano Sonata No. 2: "Concord, Mass., 1840-60."
Yet while this piece clearly follows the line of European symphonies of the 19th century, there are elements that make it uniquely Ives and uniquely American.
A kind of Yankee austerity keeps the romanticism in check throughout the first movement, where a motif that sounds like a snippet of Verdi's "La donna e mobile" keeps recurring. The middle section of the lovely second movement, which opens and closes with a sweet, simple and serene melody well-played by Celeste Frehner, has stentorian French horns braying against a swooning, lush melody in the strings - a foreshadowing of some of Ives' later sonic experiments.
The concert opened with Michael Daugherty's "Route 66," a wild and thrilling musical evocation of the Mother Road, driven by a wealth of inventive percussion and an ever-changing series of melodic bits and pieces that was a bit like listening to the landscape whizzing by at about five miles an hour faster than the posted speed limit.
Original Print Headline: Symphony features rare American music blend
James D. Watts Jr. 918-581-8478
Fiddle player and composer Mark O'Connor was featured during the Tulsa Symphony's concert on Saturday. Tulsa World file