As our focus has sharpened with the passage of time, American music of the mid-20th century now appears to be just the first flowering of the gilded age of music composition in which we currently live.
Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3 (1944-1946) stands as one of the pinnacles of that era (or any era). It has a laser-sharp motivic focus. The rising notes of the start of the composer’s own “Fanfare for the Common Man” (1942), which is the basis of the final movement of the symphony, are inexorably intertwined in the fabric of the first three movements. They shape and inform the entire piece.
Yet the piece is breathtakingly lyrical and full of flights textural fantasy.
So, it made for high drama when conductor Lawrence Loh began his first season as conductor of the West Virginia Symphony with the piece.
The hushed beginning had poignancy and drama with the sighing high violins playing hints of the Fanfare with the intervals of the theme turned upside down.
Loh built the forceful textures that followed steadfastly, drawing some rousing playing from horns, trombones and tuba.
The jovial second movement hints at the coming Fanfare more overtly. Brasses launch the main melody with forceful blare and the intervals its motif are closer to the Fanfare. The sound was a bit loose in attack at the start but settled into a solid rhythmic drive with vivid playing. The lyrical central section was beautifully shaded by the woodwinds and aptly phrased. A brief chorale for the trombones was a high point.
Loh did his best work right at the close, punctuating the massive final textures with a final thump from the timpani and bass drum that was both huge and precisely together.
The third movement alternates between lyrical melodies (the Fanfare in mysterious whispers) and textures that glitter like twinkling stars. The orchestra played graciously with zesty harps, piano and celesta and lightly articulating woodwinds.
Loh navigated it carefully, locking the shifting meters of the fast section concretely, but made the music sound more nervous than whimsical.
When the Fanfare finally arrives in the finale, its initial statement, originally in the heralding trumpets in the music from 1942, is switched to a quiet meditative chorale in flutes and clarinets. This was beautifully played.
The brass steal the Fanfare immediately, giving it powerful glory. Loh drew a big sound.
Some rhythmic inconsistencies dogged parts of the movement — a missed coordination among cymbals and the upper voices of the orchestra and a player played loudly in the middle of a sudden silence. The balance was not right in a passage in B major in the middle. The echoing fanfares in the brass covered the high string melody playing against it.
The final moments, one of the glories of American music, growled and shimmered gloriously.
The audience, nearly a full house, seemed thrilled by the performance. It called Loh back for several bows and responding vigorously as Loh called on each section to stand in turn.
Pianist Alexandre Moutouzkine joined the orchestra for a scintillating performance of George Gershwin’s “Piano Concerto in F” (1925). The first movement bursts with ideas. Melodies worthy of any of the composer’s Broadway masterpieces trade off with a novel-like flow of narrative that embraces a constantly shifting orchestral fabric. A bit that sounds like Boogie-Woogie Rimsky-Korsakov adds mirth.
Moutouzkine was ferocious on the big moments without losing an ingratiating insouciance. His clarity of attack gave his tone a sparkling luster.
Loh managed a fine-textured balance between piano and orchestra.
The slow movement was all bluesy elegance starting with principal trumpeter David Porter’s point-on solo and Moutouzkine’s radiant expansion on the original melody. Principal flutist Lindsey Goodman played with dash in an extended passage shared with Moutouzkine.
The finale has the pianist hammering repeated notes and a furious pace and the orchestra gets to gather those rhythms up and power through them too. Moutouzkine was eye-popping, particularly when the rapid repeated tones rocketed off in fanciful melody (if with an undercurrent of the driving rhythmic energy).
I don’t know that I have heard this music played at a faster pace, but the orchestra matched him in tone and rhythmic prowess.
Bernstein’s Overture to “Candide” had an excellent, bracing sound and lots of energy. At times Loh pushed right to the edge of frenzy but kept it safely controlled. Textures were forcefully delineated, although the middle of the range in massive passages sounded a bit opaque. Bernstein’s lilting melodies were gracefully shaped and played.