Canton Symphony’s Peculiar Heroics, But an Astonishing Colin Currie

United StatesUnited States Tower, Wagner, Rouse, Prokofiev: Colin Currie (percussion), Canton Symphony Orchestra, Gerhardt Zimmermann (conductor), Umstattd Hall, Canton, Ohio, 3.10.2015 (TW)

Joan Tower, Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No. 1 (1986)

Wagner, “Ride of the Valkyries,” from Die Walküre (1854)

Christopher Rouse, Der Gerettete Alberich (1997)

Prokofiev, Symphony No. 5 in B Flat Major (1944)

The theme of the Canton Symphony Orchestra’s season opener, with Gerhardt Zimmermann conducting, was “Heroes Among Us”—ambitious, to be sure, since it sets up an expectation of lofty ideals: bravery, courage, and sacrifice. And yet I felt half the content to be somewhat underwhelming in that regard, if not downright peculiar.

Joan Tower’s Fanfare For The Uncommon Woman No. 1 (1986) uses the same instrumentation as Aaron Copland’s unforgettable Fanfare for the Common Man, and even begins with similar solemn, measured percussion strokes. But after that, Tower’s brass scoring is considerably more busy and textured than Copland’s majestic simplicity. It’s probably best to think of Tower’s Fanfare not so much as a cheeky or feminist retort to Copland (as some have considered), but rather as a respectful and warm embrace of women across history who, in Tower’s words, “…take risks and are adventurous.”

Further pursuing the notion of adventure as it relates to women – though this time of a fantastical sort – is the stormy “Ride of the Valkyries” from Wagner’s Die Walküre. In Norse mythology, the Valkyries were valiant warrior maidens on horseback, given the power to determine a battle’s outcome and reward fallen heroes by delivering them to Valhalla to reside with the gods. Not surprisingly, the orchestra, like the Valkyries themselves, boldly soared to the occasion, effectively conjuring the haunting imagery of battle cries echoing through windswept cliffs.

Continuing with Wagner’s Ring Cycle as source material, the proceedings took a decidedly quirky and abstract turn with Christopher Rouse’s Der Gerettete Alberich (roughly translated as “Alberich Saved”), composed in 1997. The work is a concerto-like fantasy for solo percussionist and orchestra that loosely explores Wagner’s melodic themes connected to the character of Alberich, the maleficent dwarf.

“As Alberich’s whereabouts are unknown at the end of the Ring,” Rouse tells us in his program notes, “it occurred to me that it might be engaging to return him to the stage, so to speak, so that he might wreak further havoc…” And that’s precisely what guest percussionist Colin Currie accomplished with his dizzying assortment of drums, wood blocks, and marimba.

Also in the array were two guiros – hollow, notched wooden gourds that produce a raspy noise when rubbed with a stick. In this context, that sound was an appropriate irritant, representing Alberich’s mischievous, taunting nature. Currie’s manual dexterity, tempo management and rhythm sensibilities were marvelous to behold in his astonishing range, harmoniously balanced with the orchestra. At times, wildly textured rhythmic cacophonies were exchanged with the orchestra, with one passage suggesting that Alberich had become a 1970s rock-and-roll drummer. So yes, the music was cleverly structured and loaded with aural witticisms, yet ironically light in poetic or emotional thrust.

This was not so much the case with the evening’s finale, Prokofiev’s powerful Symphony No. 5. For all of its rhythmic complexities, tempo changes and occasional dissonances that tend to interrupt its inspired and emotive passages, it is nonetheless a compelling homage to fortitude and joyous valor in times of war.

In the end, the program seemed to dangle a question. Where do our most meaningful ideas of heroes reside: in the fables of fictional gods, or in the inspiring accomplishments of real humans? Thematic shortcomings notwithstanding, one other expectation was well met, the breathtaking sonority of the Canton Symphony Orchestra. This ensemble’s artistry is itself heroic.

Tom Wachunas

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