The Midland Symphony brought its 1999-2000 season to a close on Saturday night at the Midland Center for the Arts. The program, which conductor Carlton Woods fashioned to include works written 140 years apart, also spanned several styles, with results that were equally mixed.
The concert opener, the rarely heard but delightful "Procesion del Rocio" by Spanish composer Jaoquin Turina, brought about what was probably the orchestra's best playing of the evening. Their sound was spirited and their playing was disciplined in this bright, refreshing tone poem. Concertmaster Clair Stanley was featured in a short, plaintive solo, and principal flutist Joanna White was featured in a most evocative passage. Woods used his considerable dramatic skill to bring the orchestra to a broad, quiet coda that brokered an edge-of-seat anticipatory hush throughout the audience, leading to a resolute and resounding ending.
Next, the evening's guest soloist, pianist Angela Cheng, was featured in a memorable performance of Beethoven's luscious fourth concerto. It was evident from the work's opening chords, which Beethoven surprisingly gave to the solo piano, that Cheng would find delicate, translucent musical tonal qualities that would paint the work in bright, shimmering colors. In fact, it was hard not to sit there and believe that Cheng's playing was the absolute definition of musical color. So finely etched and subtly crafted were her tonal distinctions, that there was never any doubt as to why such a visual metaphor as "color" is used to describe this aspect of an "aural" art like music.
Not only was Cheng's pallet vivid and arresting in its variations, but her technique in using these elements showed a deep and seasoned understanding of the work and of the piano's capabilities. Metrically and lyrically, Cheng took the concerto in a linear, exacting manner, letting her technical mastery of the virtuoso aspects of the work speak from understatement, rather than flash.
In the magnificent "conversation" that Beethoven wrote between the orchestra and the piano in the second movement, Cheng's quiet serenade was surrounded and punctuated by orchestral shouts, though Woods (perhaps in deference to Cheng's quiet strength) chose not to make their statement as angry or biting as some conductors have done. So magically insistent was the piano's calming influence, it almost seemed as if she poured calming oil across the stage, before she and the piano had their one brief moment of existential angst, leading to the movement's intensely peaceful conclusion.
Cheng and Woods took the verdant and flowery third movement at quite a delightfully brisk pace, with Cheng demonstrating exquisite bell-like pianissimos and clarion fortes. The orchestra was well prepared for the demands of this work, and the accompaniment was clear, energetic, and on target throughout.
After intermission, the sole work on the second half was Copland's third symphony, a work which has achieved popularity, but which is deceptively difficult to bring off in a way that can immediately win over audiences. While there are some familiar-sounding sections, this work is not Appalachian Spring's twin, as audiences sometimes expect, and it was to Woods' credit that he didn't try to make it sound like it was. Unfortunately, he and the orchestra seem not to have had adequate time to bring all the disparate elements of this work to the level of distinction that the Turino, or even the Beethoven, had been achieved.
It was in the middle two movements, particularly, where the work became at times beyond their abilities on that evening. The second movement opens with a brass fanfare (presaging the more famous one which would come later) and unfurls into a rapid, dizzying scherzo-like movement. The string writing, in particular, showed one of the major weaknesses in the MSO's ensemble. The broad andante of the third movement also stretched the strings to their breaking point, but gave opportunities for excellent solos by flutist Clair Stanly (again), bassoonist Drew Hinderer, and oboist Roger Rehm.
Perhaps it was the wartime era in which the work was written that made Copland realize, as we as a nation are only beginning to do now, that it was the "common man" (and woman) of that time who deserved to be celebrated as the generation who saved freedom. The glorious finale into which Copland grafted his "Fanfare for the Common Man" rose to noble and majestic heights, and was as close as the MSO came Saturday night to "owning" the work.