(This review was written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Luke Quinton.)
Despite a program that offered the barest explanation of what the audience should expect, the UT Symphony Orchestra’s concert at Bass Concert Hall this week presented a concert called “World at War” alongside a stage-sized video of archival photographs, primarily from World War II.
The UT Symphony and director Gerhardt Zimmerman approached this theme in two minds, with a program that required a bit of cognitive dissonance: scheduling a burst of patriotism alongside a Shostakovich symphony that paints one of the most fervent artistic statements on the grim reality and fantasy of war in the 20th Century.
The patriotic burst came in the form of a lovely new work by composer J. Vincent Russo, called “Honor and Valor,” a nimble bit of business echoing the flute and trumpet parts that have come to define the soundscape of America’s ceremonial occasions. The work then parades the five songs of the branches of the armed services. Veterans of each branch were asked to stand when their song was played, and did so in remarkable numbers.
A question emerged: How should we think about an unabashedly patriotic song performed at a university campus, and not for ceremonial function? Perhaps there is nothing to think about, except to observe that the focus of university politics and consciousness have looked elsewhere since the end of the Vietnam era. Perhaps this programming is a happy medium between honouring a sacrifice and, in Shostakovich’s case, criticizing the folly of those who beat the drum.
In any case, the rest of the evening was concerned with a war’s broader sacrifice; the destruction of lives and civilizations.
UT composer Donald Grantham unveiled a newly orchestrated version of a vocal piece originally written for voice and small ensemble. The text for this work, sung by baritone David Small, was an almost abstract length of prose by Mark Twain, a rather dense critique of religious, democratic ignorance at times of war.
The orchestration was by turns thrashing and twinkling underneath Small’s rich, smooth delivery. Yet, tasked with singing the longish text in order, the piece asks the singer to unspool the words in the rather acquired taste of speech-singing; that style somewhere between musical theatre and religious chanting.
On a stage-sized screen behind Small and the orchestra, a projection of Twain’s face parked itself next to a crawl of lyrics, which unfortunately ran ahead of the performance.
Yet the screen would turn out to have a noble purpose, running a deft selection of images and videos to accompany Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” symphony.
UT Symphony’s engaging, accomplished performance of Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 7 in C Major,” was worth staying for.
For a student orchestra, this work is the sort you start rehearsing in September, and under conductor Gerhardt Zimmerman, these young players had clearly grown to appreciate and internalize this wildly diverse piece of art. Their playing was assured, confident and lyrical. The energy in the first movement was invigorating. Only a few flubs along the way — cellos out of sync with woodwinds — were quickly brought back into the fold by Zimmerman. The woodwinds, with a number of long, sustained solo parts, shone. And crucially, the crosstalk between sections that defines this rich, conflicted work were musical and persuasive.
All the while, a Ken Burns-like selection of images and videos streamed behind the orchestra on a giant screen. The video’s most stirring section was the footage of a positively titanic meeting of Hitler’s army. This footage accompanied an equally terrifying point of Shostakovich’s symphony, where the music churns forbiddingly.
These images were expertly planned by recent UT alum theatre designer Stephanie Busing. With the benefit of these black and white pictures, one felt immersed in the period. Occasionally the images were cut too quick, enough to distract from the playing. Yet, in more powerful sections, the pictures enmeshed themselves with the music by simply being very still and setting a scene, as on a barely moving image of a riverbank.
Stillness is perhaps what one wants to experience with music like this.