United States Foote, Hanson, MacDowell, Piston: André Watts (piano), Rachel Waddell, Gerhardt Zimmermann (conductors), Canton Symphony Orchestra, Umstattd Hall, Canton, Ohio. 25.1.2014 (TW)
Arthur Foote: Suite for Strings in E Major, Op. 63 (1907-09)
Howard Hanson: Symphony No. 2, Op. 30, “Romantic” (1930)
Edward MacDowell: Piano Concerto No. 2 in D minor, Op. 23 (1884)
Walter Piston: The Incredible Flutist Suite (1938)
American composer Arthur Foote (1853-1937) once wrote that “…the object of the artist should be to tell us in music…the truths of life and the beauty and sublimity of life.” It is an operative philosophy that inspired his best works. The most famous of those is his Suite for Strings, which was the first selection on a program that spotlighted other American composers who shared Foote’s musical outlook.
Foote’s Suite for Strings is a brilliant platform for showcasing the depth and sensitivity of this orchestra’s string section. From the lush and pastoral sweep of the first movement, the delightful precision of the Tchaikovsky-esque pizzicato second, and throughout the churning power of the finale, the orchestra was breathtaking. An added delight was the appearance of CSO Assistant Conductor Rachel Waddell. Her gentle yet impassioned physicality elicited an equally vivacious orchestral response to the Foote’s lyrical thrust.
Speaking of lyrical thrust, at one point in the heroic finale of Howard Hanson’s Second Symphony, Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann’s baton became airborne, landing at the feet of nine-year-old Mya Miller who was seated in the front row. She couldn’t get Zimmermann’s attention as he walked offstage at intermission, so she dutifully handed the baton to one of the violinists. Not a minute later and smiling broadly, Zimmermann walked back out to the edge of the stage and handed the baton back to starstruck Mya—talk about a rewarding experience.
And for those who traveled through unprecedented polar weather conditions to attend the concert, bravery was rewarded with an incomparable event: Edward MacDowell’s Piano Concerto No. 2 performed by André Watts. He has a unique, enchanting way of “speaking” cascades of fleet-fingered notes with wizardly authority. Watts conjured tones and moods that were alternately delicate and tumultuous, soft and sinewy, ebullient and brooding. His adventuresome sonority and sublime technique were seamlessly entwined with the ensemble’s emotive clarity. It’s difficult to imagine that Watts has ever played better, or that this orchestra was ever more attentive to a soloist. This was an astonishing performance that brought the audience to its feet.
Watts’s compelling performance was a true show-stopper, making a follow-up seem counterintuitive. So I remain conflicted about the placement of the final selection, Walter Piston’s The Incredible Flutist Suite—not that it wasn’t wildly invigorating and charming. In fact it’s downright rambunctious in parts, such as the “Arrival of the Circus and Circus March,” wherein orchestra members hilariously vocalized the sounds of a boisterous crowd, complete with Zimmermann’s climactic dog bark followed by an orchestra member’s cat howl. Still, the high-energy theatricality of Piston’s showpiece seemed an unnecessary intrusion, after savoring Watts’s magnificent accomplishment.