Classical Fireworks display concert brings out the big guns, draws large crowd despite rain
Details: CANNONSBURG -- Cannonsburg Ski Area dodged the bullet when torrential rain, hail and lightning ripped through neighboring areas Thursday evening, but the Grand Rapids Symphony made up for it with impressive salvos in the annual Chase Picnic Pops Classical Fireworks concert.
Music Director David Lockington hauled out some of popular classical music's biggest guns and added several rip-snorters by contemporary composers for a two-hour, 15-minute program awash in rhythmic drama, vivid tonal colors and climactic pyrotechnics -- onstage and in the air.
The result was the musical equivalent of a banquet table groaning with every variety of comfort food. It was feel-good stuff of the highest order, and, as the maestro intended, a good time was had by all in the crowd of 2,802.
The symphony will do it again at 8 tonight, gates opening at 5:30 p.m. Preconcert entertainment will be by vibraphonist Jim Cooper and the jazz group Project Jobim. As on Thursday, the evening will end with fireworks.
While the program seems guaranteed to please, each work carries enough hazards to erase the pleasure if not performed with the right balance of abandon and care. Lockington adroitly led the orchestra through the minefields Thursday, and the players responded with high competence, assurance and verve.
In a night full of highlights, there were few downward turns -- the distraction of slightly sharp intonation in a trumpet solo during the bluesy midsection of Gershwin's "An American in Paris"; an uncharacteristic bit of starchiness from the normally facile orchestra in the same area; a touch of raggedness in Beethoven's Overture to "Coriolan," and a tendency by the amplified sound mix to leave one wanting a little more muscle in the bass register.
But these were trifles that fled in the face of gratifying fortississimos; ethereal pianissimos; polished solos, duets and trios; the artful interplay between instrumental families; and a sense of cohesion between conductor and orchestra. It looked, felt and sounded like a simply smashing gig on a fine midsummer night.
Grand Rapids Symphony's Chase Picnic Pops
Repeats: 8 p.m. Friday; gates open at 5:30 p.m.
Where: Cannonsburg Ski Area, 6800 Cannonsburg Road NE
Tickets: Advance lawn seats $14, $12 students and seniors, $5 ages 2-15, free for children younger than 2, at Ticketmaster outlets (800) 982-2787, ticketmaster.com. For reserved chairs or table seats, call 454-9451 or go to grsymphony.org. All tickets $2 more at the gate.
Everyone will have favorites, but in this corner, standouts were tight and dynamic renderings of "Festive Overture" by Shostakovich and "No. 8 Presto" from Dvorak's "Slavonic Dances," Op. 46; the premiere of a robust, use-all-the-tools-in-the-box suite from the 2008 film "Journey to the Center of the Earth," and the second of two movements from "Carnaval" by Roberto Sierra, "The Phoenix."
The latter took life from a matrix of sensuous instrumental interactions incubated in a persistent ostinato (a la Ravel's "Bolero") and swooped upward into inspiring flight with power, precision and spirit.
Introducing the film suite, Lockington told how he learned of the composer, Andrew Lockington (no relation). Liking what he heard of the Ontario, Canada, native's work, the conductor asked him to compose a suite for performance here. The composer, he said, expects to attend tonight's concert.
The highly visual 11-minute work begins with a brass choir, then brings in sweeping phrases by strings before breaking into a martial sequence keyed by a snare-drum tattoo. That opens into a broad, Big-Sky landscape. Melodic lines follow with vocal harmonies overlayed by an ensemble of Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus members on the vowel "ah." The section gives way to a succession of busy, arpeggiated violin work, moody collaborations by celli and basses, lush chords with harp accents, rhythmic heavy lifting by violas, catchy syncopations, and symphonic statements on an oceanic scale, pulling out all the bells, whistles and triangles. The piece's surprising but peaceful ending trails off suddenly as if interrupted in midthought. My only wishes Thursday were for more resolution in the final chord and for the fade-out to have lingered.
Lockington asked Alexander Miller, assistant principal oboist, to reveal "the mathematics" of his six-minute "Fireworks." Miller said he tied the work into the Symphony's 75th anniversary in 2004-05 by using seven- and five-beat meters, and based melodies and harmonies on positions of notes derived from the letters in Grand Rapids. The piece is richly textured, with intriguing cascades and bursts and an apocalyptic buildup to a brassy conclusion.
The concert finale -- one of the chestnuttiest of chestnuts, the "1818 Overture" -- is a can't-miss crowd-pleaser if done well. And, as was the case all evening, Lockington and Company didn't miss.
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