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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Just Plain Folk

From the Vault Dept.: A great deal of conducting talent has passed through the Capital Region. Paavo Järvi, Eiji Oue, and Victoria Bond are among those who’ve spent some time here; Geoffrey Simon, who music-directed the Albany Symphony from 1987 to 1991, was born in Australia and now lives in London, where he freelances among that city’s renowned orchestras, and issues recordings on his own Cala label. I missed last Saturday's ASO concert, so here my review of one that Simon conducted in 1988.


MIXING FOLK IDIOMS into classical contexts is one of the ways in which contemporary American composers have attempted to assert a nationalistic identity. It’s  never been as effective here as in Europe, where the stylings have had centuries of cross-pollination.

Geoffrey Simon
The Albany Symphony Orchestra premiered William Mayer’s “Of Rivers and Trains” Friday night at the Troy Music Hall, a piece commissioned by the Albany Medical College as part of its 150th anniversary celebration. It incorporates the folk song “Erie Canal” for melodic relief from an otherwise relentless ostinato, demonstrating the best and worst of formalizing folk songs.

At the worst you end up with a self-consciously cute work like Roy Harris’s “Folk Song Symphony.” At best is Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” approach, in which the setting never overwhelms the simplicity of the original.

Mayer has written a gutsy orchestral score that requires a large percussion section to reproduce a sense of the tumult in transportation his suite celebrates. Out of an opening chaos rises the “Erie Canal” theme, quoted in fragments at first. It’s a nice choice of material in itself, but sticks out self-consciously in the context of the piece as a whole.

The orchestration is relentless, piling layer upon layer with little contrast or relief. And it’s a wide gap between Mayer’s intricate style and the simplicity of the folk song. As a setting of the latter, the 20-minute suite is ten minutes longer than it ought to be. But it’s doggedly non-offensive: a nice work, which is probably no more than the College required.

The Albany Symphony, conducted by music director Geoffrey Simon, was primed for the challenge thanks to the more pleasingly irreverent snoot Brahms cocked at a college with his “Academic Festival Overture.”

The orchestra is developing a rich string sound with a nice focus of intonation, but the familiar works on the program, which included Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” showed problems in coordination, with ragged entrances and cutoffs.

“Pictures” is a brass-section vehicle that at many moments offered more difficulties than the section could handle. These are players who in previous performances have proven themselves the masters of their material, so it’s possible that more preparation was needed for this piece.

Australia’s bicentennial is being observed with music this symphony season, and Melbourne-born Peggy Glanville-Hicks’s 1956 “Etruscan Concerto” added a touch of the exotic with its eastern influence.

Pianist Penelope Thwaites was the facile soloist, gracefully concealing the tough technical requirements of the cheerful piece.

Hicks’s transparent orchestration enhances the delicacy of the work, which is a three-movement suite in sections titled “Promenade,” “Meditation” and “Scherzo” and carries epigraphs from D.H. Lawrence’s “Etruscan Places.”

The orchestra could have been a more sensitive accompanist; there were long, fast-paced stretches where they fell out of sync with the soloist and the tuttis often obscured the piano.

The third program of the season will be performed at the Troy Music Hall Dec. 2 and at the Palace Theatre on Dec. 3. Guest conductor Kenneth Kielser conducts Bernstein’s “On the Waterfront” Suite, Steven Stucky’s “Transparent Things” and Brahms’s Symphony No. 2.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 7 November 1988

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