Sunday, February 11, 2018

Carmel Symphony Orchestra heralds the love holiday with all-American concert

At home in the Paladium as the Center for the Performing Arts' local resident orchestra, the Carmel
Janna Hymes, music director
Symphony Orchestra
is adding luster to its history with a new music director in her first season.

Janna Hymes and the 85-piece ensemble delivered hearts and flowers to the CSO's supportive audience Saturday night with a concert that included a seasonally appropriate premiere, "Love Letter" by Michael Thurber, a violin concerto written for Tessa Lark, silver medalist in the 2014 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis.

Reinforcing both the American and love themes of the concert were pieces by American masters George Gershwin, Charles Ives, Leonard Bernstein, and Howard Hanson.

Hymes has elicited alert, unified playing from the orchestra, as was evidenced by the short works that preceded the concerto. Though Gershwin's Overture to "Girl Crazy," a hit show from 1930, set the celebratory mood immediately, it tucks into its heady progress the woundedness of "But Not for Me," a bittersweet reminder of feeling left out of what Valentine's Day is oversold to celebrate.

Shore leave for sailors in New York City is the milieu of "On the Town," a dance-rich early success of Bernstein's on Broadway. Love in its temporary and long-range forms trips the light fantastic, from the bumptious "Great Lover"  through the plaintive "Lonely Town" to the bustling "Times Square, 1944." The effervescence of the concluding piece was a little wild and woolly in this performance, but the spirit was properly bold.

The only other place in the concert where balance and blend seemed somewhat approximate was in Variations on
In 2014, Tessa Lark became the first American IVCI medalist in decades.
"America," a brightly bedecked arrangement for orchestra by William Schuman of Ives' youthful whimsy for pipe organ. Color contrasts, often abrupt and unprepared, and shifts of tempo and rhythm pose challenges for musicians.

When the cheeky mosaic of sounds doesn't appear entirely natural, some of the humor can be lost. For the most part, however, the Carmel players captured all the Yankee cussedness Ives sought to apply to the venerated tune whose patriotic words used to be known to every American schoolchild. The United Kingdom has recently become sole proprietor of the melody its subjects are proud to call "God Save the Queen."

The work served another purpose: as a kind of calisthenics for the demands of Hanson's Symphony No. 2 in D-flat major ("Romantic"). As easily as the piece goes down with audiences, it is challenging to bring off, threaded with mesmerizing tunes, one of them often deployed, and its wealth of turbulence and tenderness. This performance clarified a score that has its potentially muddy moments. The composer's defiance of modernism in a work intended to carry the open-hearted feeling of 19th-century symphonies into a new era was stoutly argued in a splendid account Saturday night.

That achievement couldn't dim the spotlight thrown upon Lark and the new piece written for her by doublebass player and LaPorte native Michael Thurber. In four movements of love-inspired genre painting and portraiture, Thurber has emphasized his beloved's frisky nature, her individuality and, musically, her strong affinity for country and bluegrass fiddling.

The playwright A.R. Gurney was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for "Love Letters," a great favorite of celebrity couples focusing on a fictional couple's relationship over 50 years. Thurber's similar title in the singular shows that his is one message, split four ways, reflecting on a relationship that so far is short-term. Like most new loves, it gathers impressions of the sort that are likely to form lasting memories and that will confirm the initial mutual attraction.

Thus, the music, though fresh in its presentation, has a nostalgic cast. It is up to the soloist, the object of these fond reflections, to portray herself. And Lark, a captivating performer, sounded fully committed to fleshing out the musical portrait. The performance thus succeeded in giving a localized illumination to love's perpetual two-way street. In Carmel, that doubtless includes roundabouts and "YIELD" signs — a gentle warning to all lovers.