This is my first blog entry in my life.
Bacon: Ford’s Theatre; A Few Glimpses of Easter week, 1865
Beethoven:Symphony No. 5
Ungar: Ashokan Farewell
Glass: CIVIL WarS
Copland: Lincoln Portrait
Very interesting programming by Maestro Christopher Wilkins to open a concert almost entirely filled with modern American composers with Ernst Bacon. “Ford’s Theater” is a set of short descriptive vignettes sometimes using themes popular in the Civil War era. The set worked well, as the style of the music was surprisingly cinematic (I’d never heard this composer’s music). The program notes, by Dave Glerum, stated that, in the 40s, Bacon was considered one of the top composers of his day. The brevity and form of the “Ford’s Theater”, written for theater, could easily come from one of our best film score writers today. Film music from this works’ time was still under the curse of Wagnerian over-statement – but, these were instead, light, colorful and widely varying in character. Because these works did not start with a bang, nor end with one; and were such a pleasure – they became the perfect appetizer for things to come….
Beethoven’s powerful 5th was up next. The strings were up to the job of keeping pace with the Maestro’s quick tempos (except for an unfortunate opening ta-ta-ta-TA solo and a few trumpet slips). I like how Mr. Wilkins justified the works’ choice in the program: that it epitomized the course of struggle, resolution and transcendence. Quite appropriate for an evening memorializing Abraham Lincoln.
And a nice $3 cup of hot chocolate at intermission…..
The Ungar work, the theme in Ken Burns’ “Civil War” epic documentary, was a lovely surprise. Concertmaster Tamas began playing solo, then the music grew to a quartet, a quintet (strings) and then full orchestra – then back down to solo. I wonder if Ungar scored this arrangement: so well balanced and perfectly shaped. I had no idea whatsoever that Tamas Kocsis had ANY celtic styings in him!! As usual, he played with vivacity.
Then, my friend Stella Sung’s work, “Lincoln’s Battle”. Stella and I have supported each other by attending each other’s concerts and contribuiting to the Young Composer’s Challenge for many years now – and I am proud that she has been chosen as the OPO’s resident composer. Their first! Her music is all about melody – and her melodies all sing so beautifully. This was no exception. Commissioned for this evening’s concert, she portrayed Lincoln’s moral and intellectual solidity against an unending gloom of his long depression. A beautifully formed work, building to a complex counterpoint of three themes, beginning and ending with an open 5th string sustain. Again, very cinematic in gesture and breadth. Civil War era popular themes and snare drum cadences spoke in the work. Over the last sustain, Lyman Brodie, the 1st trumpet of the orchestra played Taps. The lighting was dramatic. Chris Wilkins’ figure was a perfect silhouette. Lyman Brodie stood in a single, dramatic flood of light. Beautiful!
During Taps, three large horizontally mounted screens were lowered and a brilliant, simple and powerful multimedia experience followed. As Philip Glass “CIVIL warS” began, a series of pre Civil War photographs, meticulously displayed began to sequence with the music. These images were choreographed so well by James Westwater that they actually improved the experience of this more interesting than usual Glass score – and the music also perfectly introduced the images. I can’t imagine one without the other now. A testament to the power of images, the experience testified to the changeless and the changed in American life over the last 150 years.
But the highlight of the evening was “Lincoln Portrait”. I am forever amazed at the clarity and variety of Copland’s orchestral scoring. A great example of a sonic experience that can only be experienced live and not to be captured by the microphone. The performance was very good (save for trumpet intonation in the beginning ‘ ouch!); and Chris Wilkins’ sensitivity to the score filled it with warmth and well-placed alacrity. But the images played through it – photographs of death and destruction adding an impact I’ve never felt at a classical music concert. And, the fact that the narration was read by Mark McEwen, a popular television host who is returning from a debilitating stroke put the emotions over the top. There were many tears of aliveness and sorrow in the seats this evening.
What could have been just a good concert of great music was elevated into a memorable evening that truly communicated profound ideas and spirit. Christopher Wilkins is giving us much more than we could ever ask or hope for. His gift is smart collaboration, community leadership and artistic excellence. That Chris scheduled this particular concert just before the Obama/McCain election is not lost on me, either. Our country needs spirit of Lincoln now: “History is inescapable” “Government of the people, by the people and for the people.” Maestro Wilkins is reminding Orlando, Florida that, no matter what the election outcome might be, we can always look towards the future, no matter what side we fall, by remembering the Civil War’s dilemmas and Lincoln’s wisdom.