Big. That’s the adjective the season finale for the San Juan Symphony has inspired. From beginning to end, with a breath of elegant classicism in the middle, last Saturday’s concert earned the season’s moniker. It’s been a Lollapalooza.
By my count, three works functioned as energy-filled overtures. Leopold Stokowski’s transcription of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor opened the concert. Stewart Goodyear’s mesmerizing “Count Up” opened the second half. And the introduction of Sam Hyken’s “Beatles Guide to the Orchestra” felt like an overture all over again.
Music Director Arthur Post assembled a 65-piece orchestra to ignite Stokowski’s heady interpretation of the Toccata and Fugue. Bursting with energy, the work has a natural potential for acceleration and can be a runaway train. On Saturday night, Post wrestled somewhat to corral his eager musicians. But by the time they arrived at the intersection with the fugue, Post had all his horsepower under control. Ultimately, the big, fat orchestra did Bach/Stokowski justice, and the music stirred the blood.
In contrast, Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto in E flat major cooled things down. Soloist Mary Elizabeth Bowden delivered a clear, beautifully phrased reading of the once groundbreaking work. At the pre-concert talk, Post said Haydn introduced chromaticism to the trumpet repertoire with this 1796 concerto precisely because a newly refashioned instrument had surfaced.
Bowden rendered clean scale motifs and virtuosic flourishes with ease, perhaps too much ease. Her oddly calm stage presence pointed toward perfection but lacked intensity and verve.
French hornist Greg Hustis followed with a polished but similarly disengaged performance of a new work, “Ode to Orion,” commissioned by the Dallas Symphony for him.
In the introduction, composer Lee Holdridge capitalized on the horn’s hunting-call history with a repeated ascending fifth motif alternating with sweeping orchestral crescendos. The horn continued its calling until a second, more lyrical section emerged.
Throughout a sense of urgency propelled the work forward. And toward the end, Hustis played a splendid short cadenza before restating the major theme. With sharp bursts, the orchestra punctuated the musical landscape and everyone picked up speed, racing to a sudden, crackling finish.
In contrast again, Hustis returned with Bowden for a pre-intermission encore. They played a two-minute feather of a dance, Marin Marais’s “Le Basque,” part of the composer’s joyful, 18th-century suite of short, lilting and altogether innocent tunes.
The second half opened with Goodyear’s brazen, four-minute overture “Count Up.” Pushed forward by the percussion section, the work blossomed in thick layers of sound. Sharp, angular melodic material pierced through the persistent pulse. And most surprisingly, timpanist Colin Constance emerged out of a thicket of sound more than once as a melodic soloist.
The big finish, however, belonged to Sam Hyken’s modernized introduction to the orchestra. Building on solid precedence, especially Benjamin Britten’s 1946 use of a Henry Purcell tune to introduce young people to facets of a modern orchestra, Hyken adapted Beatles’ music to show off the ensemble’s components.
As narrator, Terry Swan, actor, director, retired Air Force pilot and president of Durango Arts Center Board, brought energy, humor and flexibility to his role. At first, a technical glitch left Swan without amplification. Post quickly substituted his hand-held mike, and Swan made a quick, humorous recovery. Occasional ad libs spiced a fairly dry narration, and Swan’s friendly, inviting tone warmed the whole enterprise.
It helped that Joseph Walsh, tuba, got to solo “When I’m 64.”
The musical guide ended with the evening’s final fugue – not Bach, not Purcell as Britten would have it – but the Beatles’ “Hey Jude.”
firstname.lastname@example.org. Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic.