American music was clearly the theme of the Chattanooga Symphony Orchestra's second major outing this season on Thursday evening at the Tivoli Theatre as it gave a bow to the sesquicentennial commemoration of the Civil War.
Samuel Barber (1910-1981) consciously chose a more romantic approach to 20th century composition while most others around him were following the experimental path of modern music - and it paid off. His "Overture" to accompany Richard Sheridan's 1777 play, "School for Scandal," was a student work at Curtis Institute but has enjoyed popularity as a concert opener.
Both dazzling and lush, this substantial one-movement work provided a musical smorgasbord of sounds as Maestro Kayoko Dan delivered a fine performance, lacking only in enough strings to make the grand, sweeping lines soar to their full height.
Barber's "Adagio for Strings," the second movement from his larger String Quartet, Op. 11, has become associated with moments of profound grief as it has often been played at the death of presidents or royalty. It first came to attention when the famous conductor Arturo Toscanini programmed it for an NBC Symphony concert in 1938. Its music contains a sinewy melodic line and taut harmonies, culminating in a lingering but tense climax. The performance of this highly familiar work was both understated and serviceable.
John Adams (b. 1947) certainly ranks at the forefront of living American composers, as evidenced by "The Chairman Dances: Foxtrot for Orchestra," from his popular opera, "Nixon in China." With its pulsating rhythms and melodic fragments, this exciting work has become a staple in concert halls. While well played, the individual parts seemed greater than the whole and lacked the cohesiveness required for maximum effect.
After Intermission, there was more Barber. His "First Essay for Orchestra," Op 12 was composed specifically for Toscanini and the NBC Symphony - which assured widespread exposure for a new work. While filled with noble, heroic and tender moments, it has not retained the popularity of the composer's "Adagio." Notwithstanding, this less well known Barber was delivered with a cinematic sweep and fine insight into the composer's inner world of thought.
Like Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man," performed last month, "Lincoln Portrait" has become a mainstay of patriotic occasions. Its overall musical style sounds quintessentially "American" to most listeners, and the composer incorporates two folk songs from Lincoln's era. Its unusual feature includes a narrator, intoning the words of Lincoln himself via his letters and speeches.
It certainly seems the CSO has a special affinity for interpreting the popular works of Copland, for like "Appalachian Spring" performed last month, this rendering was downright splendid. It was focused, aching, powerful, and ennobling. And the sterling performance was only intensified by a three-screen projection of "The Eternal Struggle" that recorded the era of Lincoln and the battles he faced. Lincoln's words were narrated by Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke.
The performance was deeply moving, perhaps doing what music (and the sister arts) can do at their best-transform our hearts and minds to see and hear with a different set of eyes and ears. Thank you CSO for such an evening.