Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

April 13, 2024

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, "An American Celebration"

Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA
April 6, 2024
by Michael J. Moran

With engaging and informative spoken remarks about each piece on the program, guest conductor Peter Boyer proved as able a raconteur as a conductor and composer in his SSO debut.

The “celebration” theme of the evening started even before the official concert with an upbeat rendition of “Happy Birthday” for 32-year SSO violinist Miho Matsuno by her colleagues under concertmaster Masako Yanagita. It also showcased the family feeling among SSO members.

They opened the formal program with two contrasting fanfares: Aaron Copland’s grand and spacious 1942 “Fanfare for the Common Man,” honoring World War II American soldiers; and Jennifer Higdon’s fast-paced 1999 “Fanfare Ritmico,” depicting, in her words, the “rhythmic motion, of man and machine…in the new century.” Boyer and the SSO were fervent advocates for both forceful scores. 

Next came a vibrant account of the concert suite from Copland’s 1944 ballet “Appalachian Spring.” Written for dancer-choreographer Martha Graham, its eight movements tell the story of a pioneer couple moving into their first home. While the most famous movement is based on the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts,” Boyer shaped the quiet closing (which he quoted film composer Elmer Bernstein as wishing he had written) with special sensitivity. 

The concert closed with two rhapsodies for piano and orchestra, both featuring soloist Jeffrey Biegel: George Gershwin’s 1924 “Rhapsody in Blue;” and Boyer’s own “Rhapsody in Red, White & Blue,” which Biegel commissioned him to write in celebration of the “Rhapsody in Blue” centennial this year. Boyer’s piece was played first (he quipped, “you never want to follow the ‘Rhapsody in Blue’”). Biegel brought virtuosity and interpretive finesse to its energetic opening, lush, bluesy midsection, and jubilant, showy finale. Boyer led the SSO with a sure feeling for “the composer I know best.”

After KeriAnn DeBari’s sinuous opening clarinet solo (which drew an approving smile from Biegel), the pianist loosened up for a jazzy take on Gershwin’s crowd-pleasing classic. Biegel included some rare solo passages omitted from Ferde Grofe’s expansion for symphony orchestra of Gershwin’s original setting for Paul Whiteman’s 23-piece jazz band. All the musicians played with a white-hot intensity that brought the capacity audience to its feet.

The SSO’s next classical concert is “Magic & Glory” on May 18.