There have been occasions when the American basketball Dream Team has been beaten by a team from a little itty-bitty country because that latter team plays real team ball, and the most famous guys just can't make it happen together. Sometimes this happens in the music world as well. And when it does it is pretty amazing. Now to be sure, music is not a competitive art, all those silly competitions notwithstanding. It is supposed to be, or at least aims at, transcendence.
Something amazing happened in Tucson over the last weekend, when the Tucson Symphony Orchestra played an all-American program of music by Bernstein, Gershwin, and Copland to open its new season. Sorry for mixing my metaphors, but the orchestra, and its music director and conductor George Hanson and soloist Alaine Lefevre, hit the ball out of the park -- no they hit three balls out of the park to be exact.
This young and medium-budget orchestra played with a palpable verve and excitement. Hanson, who is in his twentieth and final season with the orchestra, is a seasoned maestro who is moving from strength to strength. Together they caught the spirit of the music exactly right, and executed it all with exactitude and finesse. Okay, a few more strings wouldn't have hurt to get that Philadelphia sound. But this was a band of brothers and sisters playing its heart out, and for this concert they were a top ten orchestra.
The program began with Bernstein's On the Town: Three Dance Episodes. While I don't think most of Lenny's music is persuasive, he is best in lighter works like this and West Side Story. Perhaps like Beethoven, he found his voice in a genre where few other composers had already made their mark. This piece is vital, rhythmic, jazzy and bluesy, if not stamped with individuality. The orchestra and Hanson made its every moment an event, sounding as tight as a Kenton or Dorsey big band. Rhythm was a-swinging, just right for the style, and as tight and precise as Janet Jackson's malfunctioning costume. In a word, they 'cooked'.
Pianist Alain Lefevre came on next for a performance of the Gershwin Concerto In F. A showman's showman -- think a small Liberace -- this guy left it all on the floor. He and the orchestra, under Hanson's gentle and watchful eye, played it like chamber music. Lefevre sang the lyrical lines, played the rhythms in style, and all of it came with attention to details and a wide breadth of dynamics-whispers and shouts. The sound was rich and never brittle. The principal trumpet played his part in this and the Bernstein like Armstrong might have, which is to say with brilliance and flamboyance.
Copland's Symphony No. 3 is one of the masterpieces of the American musical canon. It is big and bold, effervescent and glistening. Lenny thought it had major problems and Copland didn't-Copland was right. This is a work that is American through and through, perhaps most in its searching quality. It displays all of Copland's middle period language at its best, including gorgeous and glistening orchestral combinations, like piano, xylophone, high strings and harps, and memorable material that beguiles as it returns in various guises. The massive brass music that became the Fanfare for the Common Man is a section of import and weight, whose message is even deeper because of the soft and quirky treatment it is given earlier by the woodwinds. But what is most important is the journey of the work, from questions to answers, from woeful dread to a secular joyousness that is truly American, to the calm of thankfulness. Hanson made this journey matter by getting the structure just right. I have not heard a better reading or performance,
A couple of final notes.
All of these composers are Jewish. Is this a coincidence? I don't think so. It is perhaps not surprising that those on the outside were trying very hard to define what it means to be an American and to forge this in their music. And they were very thankful to be in a country who welcomed them and their contributions.
The audience loved this program -- and I mean loved it. Ovations were lusty, loud, and long. The lesson here is that American orchestras should be performing a lot more American music; that this music has an immediacy for American audiences; and that American audiences respond to it with a visceral quality, the same way that Hungarians respond to Bartok and Kodaly. The Tucson Symphony should take this to heart. In the meantime, these musicians should put more resin on the bat and keep swinging for the fences!