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Painting a picture through music

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By The Staff

The musicians of the Los Alamos Symphony Orchestra came to the hall last Friday night armed with instruments, paint brushes and oil palettes, because it was a night to celebrate the colorful landscapes of the American composers MacDowell and Grofe.But before the entire orchestra took the stage, the string ensemble presented a light work by Peter Warlock, “Capriol Suite,” from 1926. This essentially forgotten and rarely performed work was a good warm-up for the string section. The difficulties that violins and violas had with the pizzicatos were the fault of Warlock, not the players. For Warlock, the six dances of “Capriol” were short studies in arranging 16th century dance tunes. I think they're interesting, but not terribly inventive.Now the oils and brushes came out for Edward MacDowell’s “Suite No. 2,” known as the “Indian” from 1896. Right away, I have to admit I was disappointed that the program did not list the titles of the five movements. I have a feeling this oversight would have troubled MacDowell, since the point of his composition was to evoke images. The LASO string section had a lovely, dark-hued sound in the second movement, “Love Song.” In the third movement, “In War-Time,” the violas had energy and clarity in their forceful staccato gestures. MacDowell used the word “savagery” to describe the kind of feel he wanted and the section responded.The tempo of the fourth movement, “Dirge,” was excellent because conductor Michael Gyurik helped the orchestra find that inner motion that keeps it from becoming, well, a dirge. Elliot Oppenheim’s trumpet solo was perfect at the end of the movement, rendered with a dark, rich shading. Unfortunately, the final movement, “Village Festival,” had a tentative beginning, but Gyurik pulled the band together to find the rhythmic center and the players propelled “Festival” to a glorious finish. That delightful wind and pizzicato section is tricky, but the players performed admirably. And finally, yes, it’s an unusally long unison note at the very end of the piece, but Gyurik’s insistent beating time seemed a bit over done and perhaps not necessary.A wonderful surprise in the middle of the concert was Alice B. Kellogg and Carolyn A. Neeper’s “Suite for Viola and Orchestra from U.F.F.D.U.H,” re-orchestrated and excerpted from Los Alamos Little Theater’s 2007 production. I thought it very fitting that Kellogg and Neeper share the stage with MacDowell and Grofe, because those gentlemen admired genuine artistic endeavor and the musical expression of one’s own spirit. MacDowell and Grofe wanted listeners to emotionally and spiritually connect with their symphonic poetry. The same can be said for Kellogg and Neeper, who write for the the sheer joy of creation. They love their music and I sensed that the musicians of the LASO (who, like all symphony players can be at times “stuffy”) gave this new work their best. I could tell the audience and the players appreciated the second movement, the charming “Malicon’s Theme.” Friendly chuckles were heard around the hall. Also, like Grofe and MacDowell, the composers of “U.F.F.D.U.H” experiment with all kinds of special sound effects. And though experimentation is part of the composing process, Kellogg’s sometimes sweet and sometimes soaring melodies were strong and confident, beautifully presented by solo violist Kathy Gursky.Big canvases came out (figuratively speaking) for Ferde Grofe’s “Grand Canyon Suite,” composed in 1931. The opening, a picture of the light just before sunrise, is so delicate. And though it might not seem like it to the audience, it is very difficult to play with a soft pastel quality, yet still deliver an intensity. So, it was unfortunate that the English Horn early on was under pitch on the concert “B” every time it sounded. Could this be the fault of Grofe for choosing a difficult note for the instrument? I don’t know, but it was disappointing. The orchestral crescendo as the sun finally came up over the mountains was huge and brilliant.If you were at the concert last Friday night, you might have wondered, as I did, why that motive in the “Painted Desert” sounded so familiar.I bet that Grofe subconsciously borrowed from Debussy’s “Prlude l’aprs-midi d’un faune,” composed in 1894. Grofe’s little theme is just too close to the earlier composer’s work. But that’s OK, because Stravinsky borrowed it before Grofe.We come to the trail head. And what’s wrong with clich? Clichs can be wonderful, especially considering that what we’re hearing is the very origin of the clich. “On the Trail” has been the model for practically every Western movie score. For that matter, you can hear Grofe’s influence in many contemporary movie scores. It should come as no surprise, since after all, this is all about painting pictures. And just before the audience was led down that familiar “cloppity clop” trail, Concertmaster Marion Pack called everyone together with a striking violin cadenza. If that was supposed to be a donkey, it sure was a beautiful burro! Then bass clarinetist Katy Korzekwa drew in vivid, solid phrases.The opening to “Sunset” is supposed to be a vast, open sky, but trouble with intonation in the upper register of the string section made me uncomfortable. Donna Smith’s celestial solo gave a wonderful relief from that tension. But then later on, the strings used long, flowing brush strokes to create a gorgeous melodic lines.Finally, in “Cloudburst,” the LASO played with such intensity and life force that it was actually frightening! That was a burst of energy that could have been heard all over town and up into the Jemez. The fine brass section had power, but with clean lines and detail. The strings and winds bristled with excitement, filling the frame with stormy colors. But look out when percussionists are given full reign.They brought the whole scene to a fierce, bombastic crescendo, hurling buckets full of thunder and fury! It was all flash, spectacle, and a great, splashy ending to the 2008 season.