A Mixed Scottish Bag

United StatesUnited States Benjamin, Bruch, Mendelssohn: William Preucil (violin), Canton Symphony Orchestra, Gerhardt Zimmermann (conductor), Umstattd Performing Arts Hall, Canton, OH, 6.10.2013 (TW)

Eric Benjamin: Marches and Airs (1999)
Max Bruch: Scottish Fantasy, Op. 46 (1879-80)
Felix Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 3 in a minor, Op.56 “Scottish” (1842)

What more appropriate way to begin a Scottish-themed program than with a live pipe and drum band? Members of the Celtic Eagle Pipe Band joined the Canton Symphony Orchestra in opening its 2013- 2014 season with Marches and Airs, written by local composer and Music Director of the Tuscarawas Philharmonic, Eric Benjamin.

In his program notes, Benjamin made no secret of his love for the sound of bagpipes.  Addressing the task of effectively blending the orchestra with six traditional Scottish tunes, he wrote, “As the music exists for pipes and drums alone, the challenge for me as an arranger was to come up with interesting things for the orchestra to do, so as to contribute something unique to the sequence.”

Not least among the challenges was to ensure that the orchestra instruments could be heard against a loud group of three pipers and two drummers. When the piece began, with distant, dream-like tones from the bagpipes emanating from the rear of the auditorium, there was every indication that a pleasing aural blend was achievable as the orchestra echoed the haunting effect from the stage.

The performance waxed problematic, however, when the band marched to the very front of the house to finish the piece. Here, the famous (or infamous?) Scottish two-tone pipe wail became an obstacle, obscuring the orchestra. To be fair, there were some audible passages with the ensemble delivering genuinely stirring and lush melodic transitions between pipe tunes. But such moments were short-lived respites from the seemingly incessant off-pitch piercings of the bagpipes. Notably absent from the overall sound was the counterbalance that might have been accomplished with elevated sonority from the bass instruments. Yet for all of that, the performance exuded a type of frenetic heroism, prompting a portion of the audience to a standing ovation.

Violinist William Preucil, concertmaster of The Cleveland Orchestra, was the guest soloist for Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy. If wizardly technique were the sole measure of perfect playing, this performance would indeed qualify as a flawless gem. The work’s four movements call for commanding virtuosity from the soloist in articulating flurries of arpeggios, sustained trills and crisp double-stoppings. Preucil met those requirements with astonishing precision and fluidity.

Largely missing, though, was the emotional resonance of the folk melodies that inspired the composer. The prevailing spirit here seemed more intellectual than lyrical.  As the sonic temperature of Preucil’s playing remained somewhat tepid throughout, Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann kept the orchestra at a similarly understated level, no doubt to stay balanced with both Preucil’s soft touch and the important, lovely accompanying solo work  from CSO principal harpist Nancy Patterson. As it was, the performance elicited another standing ovation.

The evening’s final work, Mendelssohn’s magnificent “Scottish” Symphony, also brought the audience to its feet. Only this time, the reaction seemed more unanimous and palpably electric, surely because the orchestra had shed all traces of the overly-finessed restraint so apparent previously.

Mendelssohn’s compelling and evocative musicality, especially in the drama of the third movement and vivacious majesty of the finale, provided solid ground from which the orchestra could truly soar. With impeccable artistry, the CSO demonstrated the full range of its technical and expressive capabilities. And nowhere in this remarkable body of musicians are those elements more evident than in the powerful, refined sonority of the string section. This was the orchestra we came to hear.

Tom Wachunas