The Greenwich Symphony opened its 2009-10 season last weekend with a tribute to Abraham Lincoln, marking the 200th anniversary of his birth with a performance of Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait." Copland wrote this piece in 1942 as part of a series of commissions to celebrate famous Americans.
Robert Sherman, who has been with classical music radio station WQXR for more than 50 years, joined the orchestra as narrator. In the pre-concert talk, Sherman said that it was the composer's wish that the narration "succeed not through acting but through the voice alone." Sherman succeeded with this endeavor. His virtuosity is in his sense of timing and the way he paced the allocation for each narrated segment. He spoke with clarity and developed the power of the message from a sense of sincerity. It was a refreshing interpretation.
The Greenwich Symphony, conducted by Music Director David Gilbert, set a strong background for Sherman. The music was poised and dramatic, punctuating the text in coordinated silences and precise swells.
To close the first half of the program, pianist Tanya Bannister joined the orchestra as soloist in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23, K. 488, in A-major. She played with kaleidoscopic touch. Bannister found many ways to shade lines and articulate ideas that shifted from the surface into deeper layers of the musical fabric. Her first-movement cadenza opened with Mozartian gestures before becoming stormy in a central passage and flashy at the point just before the trills sewed the movement back into place.
The orchestra was not always focused and sounded heavy. As an example, the wind entry moments before the close of the Andante was loud, and crushed the delicate pizzicato texture of the strings and the witty line that Bannister was voicing. There were stronger moments in the Presto finale, where the ensemble rallied and sprinted, along with Bannister, to a rousing conclusion.
After intermission, we heard the "Symphonic Dances" by Rachmaninoff. This was the last work that Rachmaninoff wrote and it is steeped in complex and imaginative colors and vibrant rhythms.
"Rachmaninoff brought all of his demons to rest in this work," Gilbert said from the stage. By this, Gilbert referred to the way Rachmaninoff transformed ideas from previous works and wove them into unexpected places. He even casts out the famous "Dies Irae" tune that makes a cameo appearance in almost every major orchestral work by Rachmaninoff.
The Greenwich Symphony played the "Symphonic Dances" with attitude. The first movement crunched at its corners, while the alto saxophone solo, played by Paul Cohen, was given a wonderful setting, nestled in with carefully placed lines by the oboe and English horn.
The second movement took on that smokey lounge feel, and was anchored by tasty brass playing. The elegant tracery played at top speed by the woodwinds on the restatement of the waltz tune was an impressive bit of ensemble playing.
The final dance is the most complex of the set, moving through a dance of teasing and anticipation, music of isolation, love music, and a guilty reconciliation of teasing and guilt. Gilbert led the orchestra through the maze to a powerful close that had folks in the Greenwich audience cheering in advance of the final gestures.
Jeffrey Johnson is a professor of music at the University of Bridgeport and a published author who has written books on music for Dover Publications and Greenwood Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.