The Modesto Symphony and Chorus concluded their classic concert series this weekend with performances featuring music inspired by American song and culture, including new works written expressly for the symphony by composer Gabriela Frank.
As composer-in-residence with the symphony this season, Ms. Frank created two works inspired by the landscape and history of Modesto: an a capella choral piece entitled "San Joaquin" and an orchestral work, "Two American Portraits," with movements entitled "Frank’s Alborada" and "Old Modesto."
The choral piece, "San Joaquin," sets a text by Fresno poet William Everson describing the often underappreciated beauty of the valley. Perhaps the less-than-inspiring poem cooled my response to Ms. Frank’s composition, which, while not unappealing, struck me as bland.
More colorful was the orchestral piece which closed the first half of the program. The first movement, "Frank’s Alborada," is a tribute to Modesto Symphony founder and clarinetist Frank Mancini and features a pair of clarinets intertwined in an elegant, and at times lilting, Spanish dance. Jerome Simas and Bill Somers played this gentle and musically intimate movement with a seamless unity, exquisitely matched tone, and sensitive phrasing that made the movement a highlight of the season for me.
Filled with frequent meter changes and hiccupping rhythmic gestures, "Old Modesto" deliberately called up the old American West through motivic ideas and orchestration reminiscent of Ferde Grofé, Aaron Copland and old Western movie scores. Ms. Frank’s approach to this compositional project was not to challenge us with "new" music, but seemed instead rather bent on disarming us.
"Old Modesto" had a playful, almost goofy feel to it that asked us to conjure in our minds the caricature of the wizened old farmer plowing up valley hardpan, or the crusty miner searching for elusive gold in the hills. The harsher aspects of Modesto’s environment and history that surely exist behind those images was left out of the musical details, but her pastiche delighted those of us willing to go along for the ride. There was more than enough color and action to keep our attention, and plenty to keep the orchestra busy. The violins in particular were called upon to deliver most of the obvious rhythmic jolts and usually did so with reasonable accuracy.
Performed with energy and assurance by the Modesto Symphony Chorus, Copland’s Old American Songs made up the remainder of the first half of the program. Lightly amplified, the choir had a warm, resonant sound which nearly always stayed in good balance with the orchestra led by guest conductor David Alan Miller. The choir’s good diction delivered both the whimsy and profundity of these songs and made clear why they are so popular, as well as showing excellent preparation by chorus director Daniel Afonso. Judging from the roster, the chorus could use more men, though they held their own throughout this performance. Anyone considering joining the chorus for next year will most certainly be rewarded by the repertoire announced recently which will include Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Poulenc’s Gloria.
Dvorak’s "New World" Symphony, which concluded the program, brought out the best in this orchestra. Mr. Miller, conducting without a score, elicited an intense and convincing response from all the symphony’s players.
My only quibble with his approach would be his up-tempo reading of the Largo, which to my mind is more effective if it allowed a more languid space in which to reveal itself. I can understand the desire for phrasing that keeps our focus facing forward, but I missed a certain depth that I generally enjoy in this movement. On the other hand, the scherzo sparkled with Mr. Miller’s energetic tempo concept. Special mention should go to the brass section who gave us spectacular moments throughout, particularly in the final movement which served as a fitting conclusion for an exciting season.