Review: Austin Symphony Orchestra perform music by Austin composers

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Composer Steven Serpa. Photo by Jeremy Teal.

(This review was written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Luke Quinton.)

It was a night of locals at the Austin Symphony Orchestra’s February concert last weekend at the Long Center, with works from Austin composers Donald Grantham and Steven Serpa, and solos by pianist Anton Nel and oboist Beth Sanders.

Nel seemed very at home with Saint-Saëns’ “Piano Concerto No. 5,” the “Egyptian.” If others scurry in their runs up and down the keys, Nel is unfailingly crisp as ever. But it was the gentler moments that brought out some very nice moments in the work. Those quieter, contrasting (“Egyptian”) chords that stand sparsely out on top of the orchestra felt full of mystery, as well they should. They are marvels, and Nel made them sound as fragile as a glass slipper.

Composer Steven Serpa. Photo by Jeremy Teal.

Composer Steven Serpa. Photo by Jeremy Teal.

Under Peter Bay, the orchestra had a very strong sense of a languid melody in that beautiful second movement.

A work from UT Composition Professor Donald Grantham began the night, with a Louisiana sampler plate — it starts out half Bourbon Street, half high-minded — the warble of horns is split with a tune that calls to mind patriotic tunes from France. The work is “J’ai été au bal” (1999/2004) and the samplers continue — the Cajun flavour comes out with washboards and spoons (speaking from the podium before the show, Bay had the percussion section point out the spoons Grantham’s piece required. “I think they’re Stradivarius spoons, right guys?”). Then there’s a really fun slow jazz breakdown, interlaced with a big band.

After intermission it was Aaron Copland’s “Rodeo” (1942) and “An Invocation” (2012) by young Austin composer Steven Serpa.

You’re either excited to hear Copland’s “Rodeo” or you’ve heard it a thousand times, but the ASO’s performance of the complete ballet brought out enough new material to keep things interesting. One wonders what a modern ballet take on this would look like now.

Serpa’s work began with a stunner of an oboe line, a surprisingly hummable tune that piques your interest. This work has some gorgeous interchanges between strings and the oboe — but it’s the clarity of the oboe (performed by ASO Principal Oboe Beth Sanders) that wins you over. Something shifts in the piece just after a series of violin solos halfway through, and the music seemed to lose its purpose for a while, but it’s absolutely persuasive enough to deserve a repeat listen.


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