By Tulsa World Arts Critic, James Watts
The Tulsa Symphony Orchestra opened its new season Saturday night at the Tulsa PAC with something truly new — the world premieres of two works by composer Samuel Adler.
Balancing out all this newness was one of the most familiar pieces in the classical repertoire — the Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, by Beethoven, along with Beethoven’s “Leonore” Overture No. 3.
We’ll say this right out: the Tulsa Symphony’s performances of the two Beethoven works, under the direction of guest conductor Philip Mann, were exemplary.
The “Leonore” Overture opened the concert, with Mann leading the orchestra in a richly textured performance of this opera-in-miniature. What was most surprising, and pleasing, was the sense of spaciousness in the music — the way Mann had the orchestra phrase certain passages so that the music seemed almost literally to breathe, to add a sense of tension and anticipation in some of the overture’s quieter, more lyrical moments. But when drama and volume and speed were necessary, the orchestra more than delivered.
The same was true of Fifth Symphony, the final piece on the program. Mann again phrased that famous opening motif — the four notes of “fate knocking at the door” — so that there was the slightest pause at the start, like a singer’s intake of breath before singing that first note.
And that tiny moment — a pause more felt than heard, if you will — set the tone for a performance by the Tulsa Symphony that was full of energy and subtlety, and a curious, yet welcome, optimism. Fate may indeed be knocking at the door, yet the TSO’s answer to that summons was filled with confidence and brio, the triumphant shout of the finale almost a foregone conclusion, rather than a resolution reached through intense struggle.
The interaction between Mann, who conducted without the score in front of him, and the orchestra was superb. This may have been Mann’s first time to work with the Tulsa Symphony, but it certainly didn’t sound that way. And the sort of relaxed, natural rapport between podium and orchestra came in handy for the other two works on the program.
Adler is highly respected as a teacher, author and composer of more than 400 works, from full-length operas to art songs. He has been a frequent visitor to Tulsa, whether working with music students at the University of Tulsa or serving as a judge for the Rotary Club of Tulsa’s International Crescendo Music Awards.
It was in honor of the Crescendo Awards’ 15th anniversary that Adler was commissioned to write his first Violin Concerto, performed Saturday by Siwoo Kim, a former gold medalist at the awards.
I am not familiar with Adler’s music, so I don’t know how representative this piece of his work. In the program notes, Adler described the concerto’s first movement as representing “my happiness in having performed on the violin all my life.”
I’ll take his word for that. What it sounded like was a kind of Kiplingesque challenge, with the violinist trying to keep his head while all those around him were losing theirs. The orchestra produces abstract bleats and splinters of music and pure sound as the soloist determinedly follows a meandering melodic path, fully of vigorous passage work.
The second movement, opening with a plaintive solo from principal oboist Lise Glaser, gave over to a violin melody that called to mind Bartok at his most austere and melancholy, and which Kim performed with just the right mixture of passion and restraint.
A short but fiery cadenza that allowed Kim to show off his expressiveness and the rich, rounded tone of his Stradivarius led into the finale. Again, the music was almost academic in its abstraction, but the individual elements of this movement were arranged into a more pleasing, even recognizable pattern.
It was played well — no doubt of that. And perhaps the best description of the piece could be found in one of the texts for Adler’s other contribution to the evening, a song cycle titled “Those Were the Days”:
“It is his composition, confused and sad/Made out of feelings he has not yet had….Merely mechanical, sure, all artifice — /But can that matter when it sounds like that?/What matters in the beauty of the attempt.”
That could also hold true for “Those Were the Days,” a cycle of four art songs using the poetry of Donald Justice, and performed by Oklahoma native Sarah Coburn.
These were brief, delicate pieces, and the huge orchestra for which they had been arranged often overwhelmed Coburn’s voice. Only the final song of the set, “Mrs. Snow,” the most conventional of the quartet, did all the pieces work together: the accompaniment supporting the main melody, the relative plainness of the melody giving Coburn the chance to imbue the song with some geniune playfulness.
Copyright 2013 Tulsa World