Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Review: Carnival of the Animals

by Gretchen d’Andrea

The Concord Band is a well-respected ensemble that performs serious music, so my interest was piqued at the title of their fall concert, Carnival of the Animals. This suite of music composed for pianos and small ensemble is a set of fourteen small movements that Camille Saint-Saens considered a humorous bit of fun. As a fan of Carnival and The Concord Band, I was excited to hear their take on it.

As it turns out, I preferred several other offerings, especially the McBeth piece, Of Sailors and Whales, and the delightful Manatee Lyric Overture by Robert Sheldon.

I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Sheldon several years ago, and am familiar with his straightforward and programmatic style. This selection was reminiscent of Respighi’s Pines of Rome. Sparkling, playful moving notes of the A section showed off the fast fingers of the woodwind players like sunlight dancing off water. The B section featured a soaring lyrical theme as manatees, and then returned to the shimmering woodwinds for an optimistic finish. It was a happy-go-lucky start to a very interesting musical journey.

In the McBeth piece, this band’s performance took my breath away. I was impressed by the depth and complexity of the selection as well. The work is a five-movement piece based on scenes from Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Program music tells a story. The composer used tools in his musical arsenal to express the adventures of Ishmael and other characters. Rich chords building and resolving evoked the deceptively peaceful rhythms of the ocean. The intensity of dark vocal tones in the singing section hinted at chaos to come. The chimes were an ominous reminder that this tale has no happy ending.

Later, we were witness to the climax of Ahab’s obsessive quest for the elusive white whale, as exciting tone clusters were punctuated by tight and powerful percussion. When the piece was over, and the turmoil stilled, we couldn’t help remarking that the band deserved a standing ovation for that piece alone. The connection between director, ensemble and audience was remarkable.

I wasn’t enchanted by the prerecorded narration. A live performance is better with live narration. Although the bassoonist was a vocally expressive reader, the piece begged for the sense of urgency that can only be conveyed through live recitation.

Carnival of the Animals included several movements from the suite. Contrast between the movements was lacking. I felt the Elephant was rushed, and the solo clarinet on The Cuckoo was overwhelmed by the band. Placing the clarinet player apart from the band was a cute idea, but made it was harder to hear his repetitive solos. The Fossils movement was a standout, featuring a smooth clarinet solo, ‘Twinkle Twinkle’, in neat juxtaposition to the familiar Danse Macabre xylophone theme representing the bones. It was great. The Swan’s low brass soloist was gorgeous as the swan over an accompaniment of winds and xylophone as ripples of water. The accompaniment wasn’t quite together here, and played too loudly. The invigorating Finale started presto, but lost its pace.

Jurassic Park was well played, a predictable crowd pleaser, rich sonorous themes expressively played by the brass section. My companion and I commented that the energy of a live performance cannot be duplicated. Nuances are pronounced, and various layers of texture created by different families of instruments come alive. The ending here was a bit frayed, but this small issue was resolved by the final chord.

The Walking Frog and Hoedown represent iconic Americana. The conductor gave the audience a context for Frog, mentioning small town circuses of former days. Frog proved that this band is completely comfortable with ragtime syncopation. A nimbly played trumpet solo was cheery and clean. Hoedown from Copland’s Billy the Kid overture conjured visions of cowboys and horses, but the band did not stay together on the intricate rhythms. Saxes overwhelmed the lighter woodwinds at times, and notes got away from players in the faster sections, but nonetheless, the ever confident brass brought the piece to a rousing conclusion.

The Tarantella (tarantula) was fantastic. The audience kept time to a repeated series of toe-tapping musical triplets passed from one section of the band to the other. This Italian folk dance was excellently rendered. The triplet extravaganza at the climax was invigorating. What a great way to end the evening.

Offering musical selections unfamiliar to the general public is a creative service to the community. It sets The Concord Band apart from other community bands. Hard work and dedication to music is evident here. We are drawn in by the familiar, but we are truly enriched by their extraordinary renditions of rarely heard pieces.

Gretchen C. D’Andrea holds a Masters in Arts in Teaching Degree and a Bachelor of Music Performance degree in flute. Over many years, Gretchen has produced and directed musicals in both public and private school settings. Currently, Gretchen directs band and chorus, and teaches general music in Uxbridge, MA. She plays flute in the East Woodstock Community Band and loves to read in her spare time.