Rousing All-American Fare for Opening Night

United StatesUnited States Bernstein, Buck, Copland, Corigliano, Hanson: Allison Pohl (soprano), Britt Cooper (baritone), Canton Symphony Chorus, Walsh University Chorale, Canton Symphony Orchestra, Gerhardt Zimmermann (conductor), Umstattd Hall, Canton, Ohio, 5.10.2014, (TW)

Bernstein: “Take Care of This House” from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue; Symphonic Dances from West Side Story; Overture and “Make Our Garden Grow” from Candide
Dudley Buck: Festival Overture on the American National Air
Copland: Simple Gifts; “The Promise of Living” from The Tender Land
Corigliano: Promenade Overture
Hanson: Song of Democracy


In Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann’s program notes for his 34th season with the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO), he expresses his enthusiasm and gratitude for the recently opened $5.4 million Zimmermann Symphony Center adjacent to Umstattd Performing Arts Hall. “At last,” he writes, “the CSO family (orchestra, music, library, staff and board) will be housed under one roof. This is a dream come true for me…”

Zimmermann’s lively comments throughout the season-opening concert were equally celebratory, with a poignant note that even though the elegant new facility (now affectionately referred to by many as the “Z”) bears his name, “…this is not about me – this is about YOU.” Zimmermann’s thoughtful selections for this eclectic program, called “American Mosaic,” not only made an exciting tribute to 100 years of American orchestral works, but also made a potent symbol of dedication, ingenuity and perseverance from this American orchestra and its supporters.

John Corigliano’s Promenade Overture is a giddy reversal of Haydn’s 1772 “Farewell Symphony,” in which the musicians exit the stage one-by-one during the final adagio, leaving only two violinists to play the last muted notes. Here, after an off-stage brass fanfare, the orchestra members entered, playing in a procession starting with the piccolo, followed by flutes, cellos, winds and so forth. The music is a strange pastiche of strident, cacophonous passages (hard on the ears at times, but nonetheless done with heady abandon), countered by lush, pastoral swells. During the stirring climax, principal tuba Tom Lukowicz came lumbering down an aisle from the back of the house, scrambled up on to the stage, and blasted a final single note, leaving himself breathless and the audience roaring with laughter. It was a hilarious, bold-faced period to a complex musical sentence.

The orchestra sustained its high energy level with a powerful reading of the 1879 Festival Overture on the American National Air by Dudley Buck, who incorporated a stirring rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” nearly a half-century before it became America’s national anthem. The mood shifted to a subtler sort of majesty with Aaron Copland’s 1950 arrangement of the Shaker folk song, Simple Gifts. The soaring, crystalline voice of soprano Allison Pohl invested the humble tune with a profoundly contemplative sensibility. Pohl brought that same magic, along with palpable urgency, to her dramatic performance of “Take Care of This House,” from Leonard Bernstein’s 1976 Broadway musical, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. More vocal magic ensued with Howard Hanson’s Song of Democracy (1957), inspired by excerpts from two Walt Whitman poems. Here the combined members of the Canton Symphony Chorus and the Walsh University Chorale were in magnificent form, perfectly matching the orchestra in clarity, lush sonority and sheer exuberance.

And what would a tribute to American orchestral music be without some aural fireworks? There were plenty on hand during the second half of the evening. The combined choruses returned to the stage for “The Promise of Living,” the best-known excerpt from Aaron Copland’s only full-length opera, The Tender Land, and a shining example of Copland at his most lyrically engaging. The performance was breathtaking.

While Aaron Copland has often been identified as crafting a sound that embodied quintessential values of American dignity and industriousness, I think Bernstein went on to inject the “American sound” with an irreverent playfulness. The orchestra delivered his explosive Symphonic Dances from West Side Story and the iconic overture to Candide as if possessed by Bernstein’s own quirky genius at melding gleeful musical rudeness with heartrending grace.

Finally, Pohl returned with baritone Britt Cooper (director of the Walsh University Chorale) to sing “Make Our Garden Grow” from Candide. The radiance of her piercing sweetness combined with his silken tonality to elevate the song to a metaphysical plane. Indeed, if hope and nobility can be said to have a sound, this may well have been it.

To quote Gerhardt Zimmermann, “Tutti Bravi to all!”

Tom Wachunas    

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