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October 5, 1999

The Rising and Shining of the New Mobile Symphony

A Review By Pat and Ernie Pinson

In its new home to be purchased by the City of Mobile from University of South Alabama, the Mobile Symphony opened its season on Friday, September 25, with an appropriate title -- "Rise and Shine." This Saenger Theater will provide a new home security and hopefully a fully funded professional organization on the staff level. Last season the Louisiana Philharmonic was cut loose from a healthy partnership in preparation for the maturation of Mobile's own. This season, we will see four conductors besides Maestro Shannon, in the search for permanent leadership in the orchestra's permanent home.

The Saenger traditions and history has much to offer. Completed in 1927, it was the first air-conditioned public building in the city. Its 1900 audience capacity offers ample space at least for the present, for concerts, chamber music, ballet, and drama. Although some repairs are needed, it has grace in its structure, if not beauty in its color scheme and floor design.

According to Mr. Shannon, the three works were selected for their tie to films, as well as for their beat and bounce. Clearly the first two, Waxman's "Sunset Boulevard" and Bernstein's "Fancy Free," should have been familiar enough for the audience to identify, even though listeners may not have fully grasped the complex rhythms. Rachmaninoff's "Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor" may have been less recognized from the movie "Shine," but if "Fancy Free" and "Sunset Boulevard" provided the "Rise" in the rhythm, then Rachmaninoff furnished the "Shine" in its lush melodies.

Waxman, who was recently included in a commemorative stamp series on film composers, won the Academy Award in 1950 for "Sunset Boulevard" and again in 1951 for "A Place in the Sun." And Bernstein is almost an icon of American musicals like "West Side Story." What both of these works bring to the stage is the rush-hour New York or L.A. staccato rhythms reminiscent of Mondrian's painting "Broadway Boogie-Woogie" -- lights, traffic, movement suddenly sounding very 1950s. But the complexity of the shifting rhythms is a work-out for any orchestra and conductor even on the eve of the year 2000. No problem. Shannon's beat was crisp and clear and the orchestra didn't miss a beat. The kaleidoscope of orchestral sounds with lots of brass and woodwinds was permeated with solo fragments by many different players, including a Tin Pan Alley piano. (A player is vulnerable hanging out there all by himself for all to hear.) But they performed as a well-oiled unit, bringing the changing tempi, the syncopation, the pointillistic instrumentation into a portrait of a place and time. The polite applause was probably directed more at the selections than at the performance.

The Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 brought the house to its feet though. This favorite war-horse conquers every time since it abounds with sheer melody and rich sound. Clearly, this is a pianist's piece with orchestral enhancement. Craig Ketter brought an absolute, calm, technical prowess to the work. The showmanship came from playing an intense, technically difficult work of huge proportions with virtuosity -- no lugubrious dips over the keyboard or ecstatic grimaces here -- just sheer beautiful, musical ability. Unfortunately, the program didn't give any background of Mr. Ketter, just his performing schedule and present position, but he is someone to watch for the future.

Shannon and Ketter worked closely together as a true team, timing attacks and climaxes right together. The fluid, lyrical, long phrases rose and fell transporting the listeners into a world beyond time and space, except for one man with a cellular telephone smiling apologetically for disrupting this utopian vision as he scrambled across people's feet getting out. (Why not get a beeper?) Ketter's ability to plays handfuls of chords in fast succession with accuracy was noteworthy, which made the runs seem like a relief. And the controlled excitement of the cadenzas was enough to make any past piano student feel both lugubrious and ecstatic. This time the applause was strong in appreciation of an evening which had a "rising shine" to it, and certainly a "shining" opening to the season ahead.

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