Canton Symphony Offers a Poignant, Curious War Remembrance

United StatesUnited States  Verdi, Copland, Glass, Pachelbel, Mendelssohn: James Westwater (Photochoreographer),Christopher Craft (Narrator),Canton Symphony Orchestra, Matthew Brown (conductor), Umstattd Hall, Canton, Ohio. 11.6.2011 (TW)

Giuseppe Verdi: Overture to La Forza del Destino
Aaron Copland: Fanfare for the Common Man
Aaron Copland: Lincoln PortraitPhilip Glass: Interlude No. 1 from the CIVIL warS – Rome Section
Johann Pachelbel: Canon
Felix Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 4 in A Major, Op. 90

It is certainly no surprise that great symphonic music, when delivered by orchestras as generally impressive as the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO), can be edifying on a strictly cerebral and technical plane. But I was also reminded by this performance at Umstattd Hall that there’s real magic in how an orchestra can woo our hearts and evoke powerful emotions, even when questionable program content and order might undermine their momentum.

The thematic backdrop for this occasion was a commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. While the evening’s opening work – Verdi’s Overture to La Forza del Destino (The Force of Destiny) – is not about any particular war as such, the opera does embrace a somber theme of fated human affairs. The orchestra negotiated the overture’s intertwined motifs of brooding foment and lighter-hearted meditation with notably vibrant energy, setting a stirring enough tone for what followed – Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man.

Still, given the solemn, percussive booming that opens this iconic work, and the ensuing thrill of the electrifying brass, I wonder now if the concert would have been better commenced with this compelling call to attention, given the orchestra’s truly inspiring panache. The work’s heroic nobility was augmented by the artistry of James Westwater, who has forged a distinguished career in integrating live symphonic music and multiple, monumentally-scaled photo projections in a form he calls “photochoreography.”

Classical purists might object that such added theatricality is as unnecessary as it is distracting. While I found the synchronized pulsing of the projected images to be visually mesmerizing and emotionally stunning in the Copland Fanfare, and even more so during Lincoln Portrait, the effect did seem more like an afterthought in both Pachelbel’s Canon and Philip Glass’s “Interlude No. 1”from the CIVIL warS.

Originally Glass wrote the Interlude as a connecting segment between scenes in Act V of an ambitious 1984 collaborative project with Robert Wilson that was never presented live in its entirety. Its inclusion in this setting could reasonably be regarded as a metaphor for the calm before, or after, a battle. Unlike some of Glass’s more strident pieces, this very short work is hypnotically serene in its simplicity. It was played here with a hushed sensibility that, once again, effectively set up anticipation of Copland’s majestic Lincoln Portrait.

This was arguably the most deeply moving performance of the evening, further embellished by the arresting photographs from the Civil War that hovered above the orchestra like so many shifting storm clouds. Christopher Craft’s narration, using texts largely from Lincoln’s letters and speeches, was both poignant and commanding, and made all the more compelling by the orchestra’s final explosive note – a victorious exclamation delivered with the deafening clarity of a cannon blast.

After such impactful drama, it seemed a curious choice at this point to insert Pachelbel’s Canon. Peace after the war? It’s possible, though a somewhat toothless peace at that. While the work’s familiarity certainly didn’t breed anything contemptible, the understated performance here was simply too ordinary for an orchestra of this caliber.

Similarly, in the final work – Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 (“Italian”) – the orchestra was at times uninspired. For all of the first movement’s rhythmic and melodic verve, the normally invigorating resonance of the strings seemed uncharacteristically lackluster, and at other points even a bit out of tune. Fortunately, such quirks were overcome by the vigorous, authoritative reading of the ebullient, propulsive finale.

Particularly captivating throughout the evening was the animated demeanor of CSO Associate Conductor Matthew Brown at the podium. His has a delightfully articulated and endearing physical commitment to the music, here emanating an uncanny sense that he literally held the orchestra – and the audience – in the palms of his hands.

Tom Wachunas