Currently, there are more American composers plying their trade, some in relative anonymity and some in the spotlight, than one might think. To open the 2016-17 season of the Delaware Symphony Orchestra (DSO), Maestro David Amado chose to feature an American composer who’s been in many spotlights for many years, the inimitable André Previn.
Fearful of dwindling audiences, orchestras often put their concertgoers at ease with works from the canon. Name recognition and familiar melodic content always help. Of course, classics are wonderful, and they’re classic for a reason, but to quote the motto of the American Composer’s Forum, “All music was once new.”
Something old, something new
For this concert, Maestro Amado (now in his 14th DSO season) has done again what he likes best: successfully balance his program between the traditional and the not so familiar. If the nearly sold-out concert at Wilmington’s Grand Opera House was any indication, the Maestro’s choices have hit the mark, and dwindling audiences aren’t too much of a problem for this first-rate ensemble.
Like every DSO season, the concert opened with the “Star-Spangled Banner.” In pre-concert remarks, Amado said he chose a favorite orchestration by his conducting teacher, the legendary Otto-Werner Mueller, jesting that he can still feel the towering Mueller at his back when he conducts.
After the national anthem, Amado returned with the evening’s soloists, the noted duo of Jaime Laredo (violin) and Sharon Robinson (cello), for Previn’s three-movement Double Concerto. The 2014 work was a co-commission by eight orchestras in America and Europe written expressly for the married duo. As expected, it amply showcases their combination of dazzling technicality and luminous playing.
But the structure of the work itself is unexpected. Each movement opens with unaccompanied soloist cadenzas, a reversal of the usual concerto format where the orchestra plays first to “set up” the arrival of the soloist.
The work is also filled with lengthy sections where the featured instruments remain silent. Laredo often lowered his violin and turned to watch the orchestra, and Robinson was clearly affected by the music behind her. The orchestra’s expressive playing and Amado’s crisp leadership created an unusually tensile and appreciative relationship between these legendary soloists and the orchestra musicians.
Showcasing Previn’s inclusive musical vocabulary, the concerto draws on classical structure embroidered with long, soaring melodic lines interspersed with clever interruptions: acerbic bursts, jazz riffs and lush sections with a cinematic sweep. The outer two movements, filled with verve and sparkle, cradle a lyrical and emotional second movement clearly well loved by Laredo and Robinson.
A worthy recipient
At the concert, Mr. Previn — composer, conductor and classical and jazz pianist — was presented with the Alfred I. duPont Composer’s Award. Established in 1985, the DSO award honors living American composers and conductors, and its alumni are a musical who’s who. Mr. Previn was in the audience to receive the award and hear the soloists’ passionate interpretation of his work.
After intermission, the orchestra returned with Gustav Mahler’s monumental Symphony No. 5. In a departure from his first four symphonies, Mahler does not invoke folk-song motifs in this 1902 work. Purely orchestral and quite abstract, the symphony also has a cinematic sweep, creating (as Amado’s programming often does) an unexpected musical connection with the evening’s contemporary work.
Over an hour long, the Mahler is a massive, intricate, three-part, five-movement tour de force with a complex harmonic structure. The DSO expertly navigated its changing terrain. The piece has especially poignant lyrical passages for French horn and trumpet, beautifully realized by soloists Karen Mendocha Schubert and Robert Skoniczin.
Under Maestro Amado, the DSO has become a strong, supple orchestra able to balance classic repertoire with forays into contemporary works.