American Panorama

by Jennifer Allen, Minnesota Public Radio
May 5, 2011

St. Paul, Minn. — The Spring For Music festival is a big, new idea, and it's only fitting that the groups chosen to participate are known for their innovative spirit. I'm pretty familiar with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, but what about the others? I dug around in our library and found a few fabulous discs from some of the orchestras that proudly represent different parts of the country.

I've never been to the Northwest, but my impression of the region's beauty is enhanced by the Oregon Symphony's disc of music by Tomas Svoboda. Born in Czechoslovakia, Svoboda has been a longtime resident of Oregon, and he has always felt a deep connection to nature. The disc opens with Svoboda's "Overture of the Season", which makes me imagine standing on an abandoned beach, watching the sun rise over the Pacific as waves crash against the sea stacks and seagulls chatter above (well ... the chatter is much more melodic, provided by flutes and brass rather than screeching gulls). The Marimba Concerto, commissioned by the Oregon Symphony, is a perfect accompaniment to an evening of stargazing, the marimba twinkling above a dark forest of strings.

The Oregon Symphony's recording of one of Norman Dello Joio's most contemplative works is one I turn to for solace. Dello Joio drew inspiration for his serene "Meditations on Ecclesiastes" from the Biblical text (perhaps made most famous by The Byrds' "Turn, Turn, Turn") and Gregorian chant. If the Svoboda disc evokes images of the sea and the earthly sky, the Dello Joio is its heavenly counterpart.

Two discs from the Albany Symphony Orchestra contain serious fun and capture the group's versatility and energy. For nearly a century, the ASO has been known for its involvement with living composers, and for years has engaged New England composer John Harbison as one of its composers-in-residence (it has several!). The ASO's disc of Harbison's music showcases his joyous side, with boisterous percussion and bold brass fanfares throughout his Third Symphony. His Flute Concerto, also on this disc, tells a charming tale of a travelling flute and its triumphant return home. It's challenging music, but will certainly get your heart pumping.

For a different take on fun, another disc from the Albany Symphony Orchestra focuses on a composer who wrote music to make people happy. Don Gillis, who grew up in Texas, was perhaps more in tune with the sound of the American West than any other composer. His music is filled with delight, with jazzy folk melodies and clever dances, evoking spaghetti westerns or Aaron Copland on a sugar rush. Though it sometimes borders on cheesy, Gillis' Symphony 5½ ("A Symphony for Fun") never fails to make me grin.

So, through two orchestras and four discs, we've visited both coasts (and the Southwest) and run nearly the full range of emotion. But it's barely an introduction. I look forward to what future Spring For Music festivals lead me to discover lurking in our library.

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Melissa Ousley
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