Here’s a review I wrote for our local newspaper, The Quoddy Tides. It appeared in the November 23, 2012 edition:

Great Music With a Personal Touch

The Passamaquoddy Bay Symphony Orchestra has just completed its round of Fall concerts. I’m sure the players are exhausted after their weekend circuit from Machias to Eastport to St. Andrews. Their program consisted of two great Romantic works and a classic work by the American master Aaron Copland.

I attended the Saturday night performance in Eastport. As much as I like hearing orchestral music in some large symphony hall, I’ve always enjoyed smaller venues such as the Eastport Arts Center. The clear, dry acoustics help you hear things more clearly. Everything is right in front of you; so much is happening for you to see, as well as to hear.

Conductor Trond Saeverud is a master at programming. Of course he chooses the repertoire carefully for the orchestra, respecting the range of abilities while providing growth opportunities. But he also makes each program a satisfying musical experience for the audience. This concert, one of vivid contrasts, was a prime example.

Opening the program was the Piano Concerto in A minor by Robert Schumann. Piano soloist Gregory Biss did a marvelous job of catching the shifting moods of this great work. This was especially true in the first movement, which in typical romantic fashion veers from dramatic declamatory statements to moments of reflection and lyricism.

Greg’s sensitive and nuanced playing came through especially in the piano’s solo cadenza. He also understands how to play with an ensemble; he and Trond achieved a terrific balance of piano and orchestra.

The orchestra’s playing throughout was outstanding. Especially notable was the second movement where the piano introduces a playful, almost childlike phrase which is answered by broad lyrical phrases introduced very effectively by the cello section. (Don’t cellists live for such moments?) Throughout the work the strings achieved the lush romantic sound that I’m sure Trond was after. In the concluding movement, the bouyant and tricky rhythms were handled well by all. and the ending was an exciting barn-burner, with measure after measure of rapid passage work for the pianist.

Completed in 1936, Copland’s El Salon Mexico was inspired by the composer’s visit to a popular dance hall of the same name a few years before. It is a kind of musical collage based on several popular Mexican folk tunes.

The rapidly shifting rhythmic patterns are a challenge for any orchestra. Toward the end we are caught up in a frenetic whirl in which different folk tune fragments are played in rapid succession and even simultaneously. The orchestra did a fine job of catching the bright spirit of the dance hall.

The stars in this work were the winds and brass. The contrast with the mellow orchestration of the Schumann work couldn’t have been greater. Of note: a terrific trumpet solo and great work on the high E flat clarinet – not to mention the four french horns who got turned loose. The rhythm section provided just the right boistrous but accurate playing that held things together.

From the dance hall we were taken immediately to the open seas of the North Atlantic, with Felix Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture. The work’s opening was one of the highlights of the evening. What a contrast!

The strings quite effectively captured the unease of the swirling ocean currents and dark grandeur of the scene, well supported by the winds and brass. I particularly enjoyed the clarinets’ fine duet just before the dramatic return of the initial theme and the quiet ending by the winds and brass.

We are indeed fortunate to have the PBSO in our midst. They prove that “classical” music is not in the least stodgy, but exciting, colorful, and full of contrasts. It’s a joy to experience committed and intense music-making in such an up-close and personal way.

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