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A restive overture
Reviewing the PSO's Opening

With this issue, the Phoenix begins a series of occasional reviews of classical music offerings. The paper has had a long-standing policy against reviewing any art event that did not offer multiple performances. The logic being, how can an audience validate a review without the opportunity to see/hear for themselves?

My argument maintains that the classical music review does not work this way, but encourages, over a much longer span of time ó a season or even the tenure of a conductor ó the judgment of performance as a medium itself.

While there is much new to review in theater, dance, film, and painting, in classical music, there is (alas) little that is new. Thus, one attends not so much to hear the music as those playing it, and just how their performance stacks up against their previous performances and those of others who have played the same repertoire.

And so we attempt in these reviews a long look, beyond the event horizon, so that our artistic community is challenged and improved (we hope) by our critical ear. This is the positive goal. With that said, I want to begin with what was exemplary about the PSOís opening night performance: Bartok.

The Concerto for Orchestra is a strange bird. Only 60 years old, it has been a classic of the repertoire for at least half its life, and yet it nearly never saw the light of day. The concerto began as an abandoned ballet when Bartok, in his dying days, turned to his old sketches to fulfill a commission from Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony. ASCAP footed the ailing Belaís medical bills while he "took the cure" during composition of this robust music. There is nothing dying in the arch form Bartok created to embody his vision; in fact, all there is is life, from the "Game of Pairs" to the rousing rustic dance finale.

After opening the first half of the concert ill at ease in their supporting roles, the PSO came into their own in the Bartok with very few distractions. Although the first and last movements ended too loudly, and a ragged rubato unintentionally pitted winds against strings marring the "game," Toshi was on his best behaviour after an excruciatingly long Brahms, leading the orchestra through some very listener-friendly Bartok. All in all I found the PSOís Bartok immensely heartening. Having heard intimations of a new sound in Lucia this summer, hearing this caliber of playing sustained into the new season holds real promise.

Putting aside the pandering of the unrequested (and unnecessary) encore, our timeís arrow flies backwards to Brahms. Letís be honest: The Concerto No. 2 in Bb is a long-winded, self-indulgent mess. For going on so long, it has the most unmotivated ending, as if Brahms exhausted even himself and said, "Aw, to hell with it." It is awkward and unwieldy to play and requires an interpreter with more strength than technique (what they mean when they say a "mature" performer).

Andre Watts was the headliner of the night and watching him work was like watching an old prizefighter: He still has some fancy footwork and some of the old moves. But the Brahms took a lickiní, make no mistake about it, and kept on tickiní even when the third movement hit the ropes and didnít move for what seemed like forever. In the end, Watts got his standing O, for having got through it, last man standing, bruised and not a little bloody for his effort. But what hands!

Which leaves us at the top of the evening, summarized in a single word: pops. It was a mistake to put Tom Myronís "Katahdin" overture, culled from last yearís movie score, on a classical subscription series when it belongs on a pops concert, plain and simple.

I kept thinking, while it was going on, about Thomas Kinkade, "Painter of Light," and I donít think the analogy too far removed. Kinkade uses paint competently and yet for all the pleasure he brings to some, he has crossed a line from art into some commercial product that in turn feeds his creations.

For all my support of Maine composers, there is a place for this, and the concert hall isnít it. Use "Katahdin" for a PBS fund drive, to welcome cruise ships in the fall, broadcast it from atop the mountain itself every August if you want, but understand the difference between music that stands on its own and that meant, by its very design, to support another art.

Tie yourself too closely to your artistic Siamese twin and she may end up with your heart. Pay too little attention to the independent thriving of your own musical material and, once separated from its inspiration, you may find your music cannot stand on its own two legs. As Iíve said before in this publication, I admire Mr. Myron as a craftsman. "Katahdin" works well supporting the film. Leave it there.

Personally, I want this orchestra to be healthy, happy, and at the center of our artistic community. It is not any of these just yet and there is much to stand in its way. But surely sounding as great as it did on the Bartok, and with a little more disciplined leadership, the PSO can be less restive and more festive throughout the rest of its season.

Composer J. Mark Scearce can be reached at scearce@usm.maine.edu

Issue Date: September 26 - October 2, 2003
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