A Sassy, Brassy Season Finale from Canton Symphony

United StatesUnited States Janáček, Jongen, Khachaturian: Peter Richard Conte (organist), Blue Coats Drum and Bugle Corps, Canton Symphony Orchestra, Gerhardt Zimmermann (conductor), Umstattd Hall, Canton, Ohio (USA), 28.4.2012, (TW)

Leoš Janáček: Sinfonietta (1926)
Joseph Jongen: Symphonie Concertante, Organ and Orchestra, Op. 81 (1933)
Aram Khachaturian: Symphony No. 3 (1947)


For weeks after the March 31 MasterWorks concert by the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO), I couldn’t help feeling that the orchestra’s thunderous performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique would simply be too hard an act to follow in the same season. It had all the ingredients of a gloriously memorable season-ending event, leaving the audience summarily awestruck.

On paper at least, the program for the actual season finale on April 28—Janáček’s Sinfonietta, Jongen’s Symphonie Concertante and Khachaturian’s Symphony No. 3 (Symphony Poem)—seemed like it could be comparatively less successful in prompting similar praises. Then again this is the CSO: versatile, virtuosic, vigorous—and daring. So on this occasion, the orchestra brought a particularly adventuresome, even sassy attitude to the program, imbuing it with surprising dimensionality and brio.

Joined by 25 brass players of the Canton-based, internationally prominent Bluecoats Drum and Bugle Corps, the orchestra was commanding as it delivered Janáček’s no-nonsense martial fanfares, his gripping variations in moods and his crisp, fast rhythms. The performance set a decidedly loud, infectiously stirring tone for the evening, aptly billed as “Sound the Trumpets!”

The Jongen work featured guest artist Peter Richard Conte, the Grand Court Organist of the Wanamaker Organ in Philadelphia. I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit only a slight pre-concert familiarity with what is widely considered the composer’s most famous piece. So I’m not sure if the organ passages that were difficult to hear (and there were several) were the result of overpowering orchestral sonority, or simply a matter of the score calling for the organ to provide more understated tonal embellishments.

That said, Conte’s playing was extraordinary for its stamina and powerful, sensitive integration of the work’s kaleidoscopic textures. He was, to be sure, a seemingly inexhaustible orchestra unto himself. Particularly magical was the otherworldly quality of instrumental colorings which transpired during the second and third movements—shimmering, arpeggiated conversations among organ, harp, flute and woodwinds. The whispered tranquility of the strings at the end of the third movement was mesmerizing, leading to the furiously dramatic calls and responses between organ and orchestra that unfold in the fourth, all building to a startling and spectacular finale.

In the Khachaturian symphony, Conte played with thrilling muscularity throughout the colossal organ solos that drive much of the work. Add to that the return of the Bluecoats to bolster the brass section, and you have the makings of a “perfect storm” concert-closer.

But this piece is curious and by many accounts problematic, at least from a formalist point of view. That might be what prompted Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann to prep the packed house with one of the most hilarious and lengthy introductions to a work I’ve ever heard him impart. Acknowledging that he was an ex-trumpet player, he was “in heaven” noting that the work’s lavish fanfare writing features many extra trumpets, and called the work “eclectic, idiosyncratic, and certainly campy.” Sharing that it conjured images of Vincent Price at the organ, Zimmermann further likened it to cult classics such as “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes,” noting that some phenomena are so uniquely bad that we somehow come to regard them as “really great.”

Was this irony, or just a salty, tongue-in-cheek hint that the work might in fact be—with its indulgently meandering structure and relentless, Russian bombast—less than great? Frankly, watching him wield his baton with unusually savory gusto, I think Zimmermann clearly respected the work, and genuinely wanted to sway the hearts of even the most strident purists long enough for them to simply have as much fun with it as he did. Did he succeed?

Suffice to say that in the end, the organ soared, the brilliant brass rattled the rafters, and a very appreciative audience responded with their own great and generous noise of adulation.

Tom Wachunas