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ISSUE 119 VOL 14 PUBLISHED 3/17/2006

Orchestra concert disappoints

By Joe Mignano
Contributing Writer

Friday, March 17, 2006

It is rare to find a concert program of an established symphony orchestra, especially one as proudly traditional as St. Olaf’s, that consists mostly of 20th century literature. With five of its six pieces composed within the last 110 years, the St. Olaf Orchestra’s Sunday concert in Skoglund Auditorium had potential to do justice to an underrepresented era in orchestral music. But like many symphonic concerts that attempt fresher repertoire, it ultimately wimped out with an ill-prepared, weakly-programmed variety act. The program centered loosely on a light-hearted theme. It opened with a diamond in the rough from Stravinsky entitled “Circus Polka,” commissioned by the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, which the orchestra nailed with its usual opening gusto. The centerpiece of the concert was meant to be Stravinsky’s famed ballet, “Petrouchka,” an ambitious choice by conductor Steven Amundson. Its brisk, polymetrical and hocketed layered ostinati and complex individual lines make it a difficult piece for even professional orchestras to pull together. The orchestra mustered an admirable performance. The tenaciously veracious brass section especially shined, led by Micah Wilkinson ‘06, who expertly realized the work’s notoriously virtuosic trumpet solos. Note for note, the piece was realized fairly seamlessly. But despite Stravinsky’s brilliant ear candy, after the last chord, the audience was unmoved, offering noticeably tepid applause. The problem was not in the performers, but in the preparation. It was a passable performance, but the orchestra was capable of better. The tempi were modest, the dynamic contrasts weak, and the challenge of driving the rhythmic intensity of the ostinati blocks forward was not met. In short, the performance was lamentably under-rehearsed; with another month to prepare this could have been a stirring performance. With the marked exception of Richard Strauss’s “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks,” what followed was essentially crowd-pleasing fluff. The second half began with a solo piece from four senior percussionists entitled “Hands,” by local composer Mary Ellen Childs. The piece, a clever hand-clapping rhythm game between the four performers, lasted three minutes and garnered twice the applause of “Petrouchka.” It was an undeniably fun piece and the seniors gave a zesty performance, but, as with the rest of the concert, they could have given a truly memorable performance with something at their level of skill. Shelley Hanson’s “Fiddlers’ Contest” followed suit. The hoedown novelty piece dangled four interesting bluegrass violin soli at the beginning, only to finish with a hackneyed Copland-esque pandiatonic free-for-all. Again, though the ensemble performed it giftedly, the piece is more suited to the ability of a high school all-state orchestra. From the “Curlz” font of the program cover to Amundson’s well-meaning yet impotent note card lessons before each piece, it was clear that someone was not taking this performance seriously. Excluding the Stravinsky and Strauss pieces, it is tempting to justify the program choices as the stuffy old orchestra’s attempt to show its lighter side. But the concert’s preparation was sacrificed for the Senior Soloists concert in May, and the music takes the hit. Concertgoers left with a funny taste in their mouths that simply did not do this talented ensemble justice. And in a venue where new music gets little attention, the gimmicky image does not help.

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