Band Camp

Santa Barbara Symphony with guests Joan Tower, conductor/composer, and Orion Weiss, piano. At the Arlington Theatre, Saturday, November 11.

Reviewed by Charles Donelan

Orion2_color.jpgA multiplicity of woodwinds and brass brought color, drama, and even some comic relief to the second concert of the 2006-07 Santa Barbara Symphony season. Mendelssohn’s incidental music to Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream opened the program, concluding with the famous Wedding March — an appropriate tribute to the orchestra’s just-married conductor, Nir Kabaretti. From there the program shifted gears as Joan Tower came on to conduct her composition Made in America, a commission from the Ford Motor Company Foundation that has been played nationally by 65 orchestras.

No matter how many orchestras play it, Tower’s piece is unlikely to become part of the standard repertoire any time soon. Based on the melody of “America the Beautiful,” the work is marred by insistent tea-kettle violins and faux-industrial bass figures that fail to cohere into recognizable shapes or forms. Ford car horns would have been a welcome diversion from the matter at hand, which at times recalled the old jazz player’s adage about what to do when you are out of ideas: “take it up an octave and trill.”

The program got off to a fresh start after the interval with Orion Weiss joining the orchestra as guest soloist for Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major. This is a marvelous and sophisticated concerto with a bewitching mixture of moods and textures. The English horn of Sarah Beck was heard to great effect, and Weiss acquitted himself extremely well at the piano, lending just the right sense of worldly nonchalance to the finale. The concerto was one of the highlights of the season thus far and bodes well for the future of this edition of the symphony.

The evening’s final selection pulled out all the stops for zaniness, going so far as to include a raucous parody of the Mendelssohn Wedding March heard earlier in the evening. The composer, Jacques Ibert, was a contemporary of Ravel’s and another Frenchman with a passion for musical blending and lush orchestration. Termed a Divertissement, the work was really more of a circus act, complete with the musical equivalent of high-wire artists, trapeze stunts, clowns, and animals. There’s a bit of a Viennese waltz in there, and a finale that sends up Sousa and his ilk. It’s wise and witty music, and it showed our marvelous orchestra at its best, full of laughter and pizzazz.

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