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November 14, 2000

Beethoven Probably Wore Blue Jeans

A Review by Pat Pinson

An evening of "dance music" is what Scott Speck called it -- from the Renaissance to jazz. Saturday night, November 11, the Mobile Symphony made Beethoven and Blue Jeans seem downright compatible. The orchestra took on a different "uniform" in their faded denims and white Beethoven tees and reminded one of Beethoven's off-hand comment about feeling "unbuttoned" at times.

But what made this concert work this time were the relaxed comments of Speck which went with the casual dress, and a program which appealed to everybody there at some point. The mixture of Renaissance suite, a 20th century work, film score, jazz, and Beethoven made for an intriguing pastiche. The unifying idea was the dance, and somehow, they all fit.

The opening was from the turn of the 17th century -- a delightful set of four dances by Rossi arranged for modern orchestra by the contemporary composer, Lucas Foss. The brass fanfare gave an Elizabethan statement of fun and of formality to the suite and further set the mood for the evening. The very slow, sustained third movement by the strings, and the polyphony in the other dances were picked up again in the modern work which followed it. The Renaissance Concerto for Flute and Orchestra by Mr. Foss, referred back to the Renaissance style - and the Baroque, too - in the smaller size of the orchestra and in the texture and melodic embellishments he used. Other moments were totally modern though. This work had an august introduction, an ethereal slow movement and sometimes polyphonic texture which included trumpeters in boxes in front of the stage. But then there were times when they were playing in two different keys at the same time, a whimsical duet between tambourine and flute, and the unusual ways of making flute music - tapping and harmonics - which melded the centuries together.

The featured performer who made all this virtuosity seem fun was flutist Jim Walker. He has a multifaceted career performing all types of music, film soundtracks, teaching at USC, and his own jazz ensemble. Not only is he prolific, he performs beautifully and has a sense of humor and ability to please a crowd. For the last movement of the Foss, he donned a jester's hat which fit the evocative zaniness of the close of that work.

The middle portion of the program featured Walker playing Bach in jazz mode with three pieces arranged for flute, orchestra, and combo. Bach_s music works in any style, and this alliance between Bach and Walker was especially appropriate. The real audience melter, however, was the haunting theme from Titanic which Walker performed in the original soundtrack. He used three flutes for this - a pennywhistle, an Irish flute, and his gold plated regular performance instrument. The audience not only applauded, but many stood, shouted, and whistled.

After such a broad range of musical style, Beethoven's Seventh Symphony seemed to settle in with an "ahhh, Beethoven!" Somehow, you can't beat Beethoven. The well-known ascending lines of the opening seemed to make the purpose clear for the whole concert -- at least, to the classical music lovers -- Beethoven. Also, maybe this was an evening for outstanding flute playing, because the flutist in the orchestra seemed especially good as well.

This symphony is known as the dance symphony. The last two movements, particularly, are easy to imagine as raucous whirling, stomping dances, an apotheosis of peasant frivolity heard with a drone of a bagpipe. The orchestra often seemed to play at breakneck speed to keep a breathless, yet measured, excitement. The turns from the wild dance to the majestic statement seem to emphasize Beethoven's ease now with the "fate" which he fought through in the Fifth Symphony. To many, this is his greatest work, a culmination of his artistic expression before moving into the experimental terrain of his last works.

One thing that Speck said twice during the concert was that they wanted to "show the audience what all a symphony can be." And in the Talkback session after the performance, both Walker and Speck commented that performance is not about perfection, but getting the message of the composer across. As this orchestra continues to tighten and grow into a single, musical unit, that message becomes more and more compelling. This was an exciting concert, and the professional perspective over the formal presentation was part of that excitement. The audience is embraced into a real trip of discovery, experiencing the travel and seeing with new eyes from inside rather than looking at postcards from far away. It will be intriguing to see what all the Mobile Symphony is and can become in its phenomenal rise in such a short time. Bravo!


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