Peculiar Heroics from the Canton Symphony
By Tom Wachunas
The theme of the Canton Symphony Orchestra’s season-opening concert on October 3 at Umstattd Hall was “Heroes Among Us.” It is an ambitious theme, to be sure, and one that understandably sets up an expectation of hearing truly iconic music exemplifying lofty ideals such as bravery, courage, or sacrifice. And yet I felt half the program content on this occasion to be somewhat underwhelming in that regard, if not downright peculiar.
The evening’s first selection was Joan Tower’s Fanfare For The Uncommon Woman #1(1986). The piece uses the same instrumentation as Aaron Copland’s unforgettable Fanfare for the Common Man, and even begins with essentially the same solemn, measured strokes from the percussion. But after that, Tower’s scoring for the brass instruments is considerably more busy and textured than the majestic or “heroic” simplicity of the Copland work. It’s probably best to think of Tower’s piece not so much as a cheeky or feminist retort to Copland (as some have considered it in the past), 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 - the second work on the program was the stormy Ride of the Valkyries, from Wagner’s opera, 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 all the music’s haunting imagery of ominous 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 very loosely explores Wagner’s melodic themes connected to the character of the maleficent dwarf, Alberich.
“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 artist/percussionist Colin Curie accomplished with his dizzying array of instruments, including a variety of drums, wood blocks, and marimba.
Also in the array were two guiros – hollow gourds or wooden cylinders with notches cut into the sides to produce a raspy noise when rubbed with a stick. In this context, that sound was a particularly appropriate irritant, representing Alberich’s mischievous, taunting nature. Curie’s manual dexterity, tempo management and rhythm sensibilities were marvelous to behold as he produced an astonishing range of tonalities harmoniously balanced with the orchestra. At times the music erupted into very loud, wildly textured cacophonies of rhythms 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 final work of the evening, Prokofiev’s powerful Symphony No. 5. For all of its rhythmic complexities, tempo changes and occasional dissonances that tend to interrupt its more inspired and emotive passages, it is nonetheless a compelling enough 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 of the evening was certainly well met, and that would be the breathtaking sonority of the Canton Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann. This remarkable ensemble’s consummate artistry is itself…heroic.