Saturday, February 20, 2010

Akron Symphony: Schubert and Steel

J.S. Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major, BVW 1048
J.Not-S. Bach: Concerto for Steelpan and Orchestra
Unannounced Steelpan-solo encore
Ave Maria for Steelpan and Orchestra encore
Schubert: Symphony No. 9 in C Major, D. 944, "The Great"

The title of tonight's program caught my attention when it showed up in one of my weekly Ticketmaster emails, with good weather I decided to take the opportunity to venture to Akron's E. J. Thomas Hall for the first time. I wasn't particularly impressed by the venue's acoustics--feeling like when the violins were playing at full steam the remainder of the strings were nearly inaudible from my seat--and the hall has quite possibly the most uncomfortable seats I've encountered for a classical music presentation. The venue is surprisingly intimate, however.

The musicians didn't appear on stage until moments before the concert started; I understand the practice is common in Europe, but I found it a bit disappointing: The cacophony of sounds of the orchestra members tuning, practicing, warming up is my point of meditation for the week, where my mental palette is cleansed in preparation both for the concert and the week ahead.

But the Akron Symphony delivered an interesting program mixing old with new and revealing the steel drum, or steelpan, as a true musical instrument. Both pre-concert lecture and post-concert Q&A featured music director Christopher Wilkins and the extremely humble, very talented steelpan player Liam Teague.

The staging for J.S. Bach's Brandenburg Concerto was interesting -- the cellists were seated surrounding the conductor while the violins and violas stood behind the cellists. I can't say where I've heard it before, but I've certainly heard it before, and I loved the point and counterpoint present throughout.

Jan Bach's Concerto for Steelpan and Orchestra took the more traditional orchestra staging but added a very nontraditional instrument: The steelpan, which conjures images of calypso, yet, as demonstrated by Mr. Teague, is extremely versatile. There was some playful musical banter between Mr. Teague and one of the percussionists, marking I think the first time I've laughed out loud in the middle of an orchestral piece. At one point in the second movement, there is some frantic string and pan playing that evoked the motion of running to catch a flight.

Perhaps due to the acoustics, Schubert's Ninth Symphony (which, as discussed during the pre-concert lecture can be found numbered as the 7th, 8th, 9th, or even 10th) didn't make a home on my favorites list, strongly preferring his Trout Quintet, op. Post 114, D. 667, as recently heard at CIM. I was impressed, however, by Mr. Wilkins' ability to conduct the piece without having a score in front of him.

Overall, though, the Akron Symphony delivered good value and was worth the drive.


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