Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

November 6, 2017

Viva America

SSO, Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA
November 4, 2017
By Shera Cohen

It’s not often when the full program of any symphonic performance focuses solely on American composers. Without hesitation, Springfield Symphony Orchestra’s “Viva America” was one of the finest evenings of music in my memory. Bravo to Music Director Kevin Rhodes and SSO staff for selecting four pieces of accessible music which created such an evenly balanced array.

If a stranger on the street was quizzed on the names of three of the top 10 famous American composers of all time, surely the list would include George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein. The skills of each are amazing unique, and within a few stanzas, most in the audience can easily recognize the signature style of these great talents.

Gershwin’s piece provided a short journey out of the country for “Cuban Overture.” Picture “American in Paris’” allure of flowing refrains to background sounds of castanets and tambourine. Perhaps a strange, yet perfect mix.

For a complete change in direction, yet also with undeniable Spanish charm, was Copland’s “El Salon Mexico.” Images of Copland compositions evoke America’s wide open west of old with heroic cowboys. This was a fun piece for audience and performers alike.

Relatively young, new, unknown, American composer Lowell Liebermann’s “Cello Concerto Op. 132” was the challenge of the evening; challenge in the sense that 21st century audiences generally do not want to hear contemporary music for full orchestra. The second challenge was the cello as the solo emphasis – not my personal favorite string, and I think that I am not alone. Special guest Julian Schwarz, celloist – also young yet with a long list of accolades since age 11, took on the third challenge as he interpreted Liebermann’s lengthy work. In a short prelude to his performance, Schwarz informed those seated at Symphony Hall that they were about to hear something, “mesmerizing.” That word was the perfect adjective to describe both the music and the musician. Schwarz received an instant mid-concert standing ovation.

Leonard Bernstein’s “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story” was the finale; a gift to the audience. Many of the recognizable songs from the musical/movie flow from one to another, with emphasis on the dramatic, cacophonous, and rocket-speed “Mambo,” “Jet Song,” and “Cool.” Special kudos to the percussionists. At the conclusion to Bernstein, Conductor Rhodes never looked more pleased and proud of his orchestra. He was beaming.