Charles Lazarus & Burt Hara — Images via &

American Music for Orchestra

Minnesota Orchestra
Conducted by Mischa Santora

This weekend’s concerts by the Minnesota Orchestra came across as a sort of gift to the fans who stuck with the orchestra and its musicians throughout their recent labor dispute. For one thing, they featured the temporary return of former principal clarinet Burt Hara — the most prominent musician to leave the orchestra during the 2012-14 lockout — as the soloist in Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto. In addition, they marked the return of Judd Greenstein’s symphony Acadia, the result of the innovative Musical MicroCommission project that was one of the orchestra’s last major accomplishments before the lockout.

I should take a moment to note something else about these concerts. This was a regular classical subscription program by a major American orchestra, and it was made up entirely of American works composed after World War II. And I can’t speak to Thursday, but when I attended on Friday, the hall was packed, and the orchestra got three standing ovations. That is a confluence of events that some might think impossible.

Granted, we have come a long way from the time when an all-modern program would mean some combination of serialism, spectralism, and New Complexity (all of which are plenty of fun, by the way). In this weekend’s concerts, the first piece, Leonard Bernstein’s Divertimento, set the tone for the rest of the program with its eight short, clever movements nodding to various styles, from jazz and marching-band music to Beethoven and even Schoenberg. The orchestra gave the lighthearted piece its due, perfectly executing its often-abrupt twists and turns.

Steve Heitzeg — Image via steveheitzeg.comNext came one of the concert’s major events, the premiere of Minnesota composer Steve Heitzeg’s trumpet concerto American Nomad, with orchestra member Charles Lazarus as the soloist. Like Bernstein’s piece, Heitzeg’s — conceived as a narrative of a cross-country journey from New York to California — shifts between styles, incorporating elements of romanticism, film music, dance music from multiple cultures, and jazz. The jazz influence is most notable in the third and final movement, which includes an extended improvisational section for the soloist. Lazarus — who has a second career as a jazz composer, bandleader, and performer — excelled in this section, and there were no signs of stiltedness in Heitzeg’s orchestral accompaniment. Overall, the concerto proved to be an engaging and accessible piece with plenty of excitement and emotion.

If the pieces in the first half of the concert wore their popular influences on their sleeves, those in the second half incorporated similar influences more subtly. First up was Copland’s concerto, with its elegiac first movement and faster, syncopated second movement linked by a cadenza. Hara’s performance was intense, particularly in the first movement, and his sound merged beautifully with that of the orchestra that he was part of for so long. As an encore, Hara briefly put the American theme to the side with a passionate reading of Camille Saint-Saëns’s Le cygne.

Judd Greenstein — Image via juddgreenstein.comClosing the concert was Greenstein’s Acadia. It is pretty common for orchestras to premiere new works, but it is not so often that they return to them. This performance demonstrated the benefits of doing so; it was definitely tighter and more nuanced than the piece’s premiere on the orchestra’s Inside the Classics series in 2012. More than any other piece on the program, Acadia sounded unequivocally like the work of a single composer. Yes; it owes some debts to Copland and Steve Reich, and this time I even heard a potential techno influence that I hadn’t detected before, but all of it is woven into a coherent narrative that is Greenstein’s own. From the skittering strings of the opening, with its alternating four- and three-note bars, to the pounding drums that bring the otherwise quiet coda to a close, the symphony subjects a few core elements — most notably a four-note rising motif — to a process of constant evolution that is only really broken up in an episodic, seemingly questioning section at the end of the third movement. This is a piece that cannot afford to be put on the shelf; hopefully the Minnesota Orchestra can keep it in their repertoire and other orchestras can spend some time with it as well.

If these concerts were a risk from the perspective of conservative classical programming norms, they turned out to be a risk well worth taking. Led by former associate conductor Mischa Santora, the orchestra took these pieces as seriously as any warhorse. The bar has now been set, and it is on the orchestra to learn from this experience and continue finding ways to make adventurous programming like this successful.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.

2 thoughts on “American Music for Orchestra”

  1. I’m so glad I found this review! (I found it after writing mine.) I find it fascinating that we came to completely different conclusions about the cohesion of the Acadia performance. I wonder if things sound more or less cohesive in different areas of the hall. Interesting food for thought! And I loved the point about how all of this music was written after WWII; for some reason, that realization hadn’t even crossed my mind. Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts! Looking forward to reading more.

    1. Thanks for reading! I guess it could be as simple as two different conductors having two different interpretations. Also, my memories of the premiere are heavily influenced at this point by MPR’s recording, and live recordings are never as good as the real thing. In any case, this rendition seemed more Sibelian, somehow, in the way it unfolded. Now there’s a word I should have used in my review.

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