Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Strings Attached, Gloriously

Strings Attached, Gloriously

By Tom Wachunas

An air of anticipation has hugged the loyal audience of the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) like a warm blanket for weeks now, and understandably so. October 10 marked the opening of the 2010-11 Masterworks Series at Umstattd Hall. But this is no ordinary season. As Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann stepped up to the podium, he was greeted by an affectionate standing ovation, in acknowledgement of his 30th anniversary as CSO Music Director and conductor. Not that the audience had reason to expect anything less than an excellent concert, but when all was said and done, even the most seasoned listeners were, in the end, extraordinarily elated.

Credit, in large part, must admittedly go to Beethoven. Equally important,however, is the matter of Zimmermann’s stated personal and passionate identifying with the Seventh Symphony, which closed out the evening. The program prior to that, though - which included Inspiring Beethoven by American composer Kevin Puts, and Dvorak’s American Suite - was ingeniously selected to whet our appetites for soaring lyricism, melodic power, and unfettered rhythmic panache.

The title of the Puts work became all the more intriguing after Zimmermann explained its concept (also laid out by the composer in the program notes), citing its metaphorical image of Puts inviting and inspiring the spirit of Beethoven to come forth. And, it would seem, he did. Very early in this single-movement work, Puts quotes two measures of Beethoven’s pulsing rhythm from the first movement of his Seventh Symphony. Then, after a crescendo into an explosive exclamation from the percussion section – which was more audacious and crisp throughout the evening than I’ve ever heard it – the piece became an ocean of swelling emotional tides. Sometimes doleful, sometimes dream-like, we hear Beethoven negotiating his deafness and despair. Later the orchestra became a gathering storm of cacophony that seemed to miraculously resolve into a sustained, even light-filled quiet. Here then was the orchestra as collective aural poet and communal Muse.

In the CSO magazine-format program for the season (a delightfully new and substantive addition this year), Zimmermann speaks of his enthrallment with the sound of strings that inspired him to become a conductor. So the Dvorak work here was a fine vehicle for him to show his oft-demonstrated mastery at drawing out the single most compelling quality of this orchestra – its astonishingly skilled, lush and unified tapestry of string sounds. Dvorak’s American Suite has long stood in the shadow of its famous cousin, New World Symphony, but its comparative modesty seemed far from the minds of the musicians on this occasion. They played it with a palpable, celebratory energy that brought its nostalgic nobility and dramatic lyricism to refreshing life. Particularly notable throughout was the precision and warmth of the many pizzicato passages that imbue the work with so much charm.

“This piece literally saved my life…,” Zimmermann says in the program article about him. He was referring to the first time he heard a recording of Beethoven’s Seventh, just prior to beginning his college studies in 1963. And here, while Zimmermann’s typically relaxed conducting style was clearly evident, belying it was a subtly perceptible, quivering intensity just as clearly communicated to the artists in the orchestra. The Seventh is in his blood, the very life of it in the orchestra. The performance proceeded at a breathtaking pace, yet never once losing a lick of precision or thunderous snap, never once diluting the work’s awe-filled drama or its imperishable spirituality. The final movement – a veritable joy train gathering speed - was a roof-shaking celebration of pure, rollicking vivacity. Liszt is said to have called the Seventh “the apotheosis of rhythm,” and similarly, Wagner said it was “the apotheosis of the dance.” Either way, the immediate and ebullient response from the audience was ample proof that we had just undergone an experience of religious dimensions.

Photo: “Concert of Angels and Nativity (detail)” oil on wood, 1515, by Matthias Grunewald.

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