ASO: Joseph Young with Joseph Swensen

Last season, Joseph Young blew me away with a program that included Hayden, Mozart, and Prokofiev so I was very excited to have the opportunity to hear him again this season. In particular, I thought that he’d kill Dvorák’s Symphony no. 9. Unfortunately, although this was an enjoyable concert, I can’t say that I was particularly impressed with Young’s conducting this time around.

The program began with a piece by James Lee, III called “Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula.” I’ve heard this piece before online – there’s a recording on SoundCloud – and I thought that it was a decent sort of sci-fi fanfare that would be a pretty good program opener. I was rather disappointed to read in the program that the work is based on Christian eschatology: it kind of bugs me when Christians, who, with the exception of a few minority sects, don’t honor any of the mandated holy days from Torah reference them as though they are their own. It particularly irked me that this concert was given in the middle of Sukkot but the program notes talked about it like it was a holiday that was no longer observed after the Biblical era. That might not have affected my ability to enjoy the work except that Lee gives pretty detailed explanations of what’s in the work and I, frankly, didn’t find any of his intended meaning in the piece. Even something like the horns representing shofar blasts didn’t come across as it was hard to tease out anything that sounded meaningfully like t’kia, t’ruah, or sh’varim. As with the recording, it came across as a sci-fi fanfare and with little more meaning than that. I’m pretty cool to the performance, as well: it was only slightly less dry than a first reading of the piece might be.

Barber’s Violin Concerto was up next, with Joseph Swensen soloing. This is a rich and beautiful piece and it was enjoyable to hear, but the credit for that goes to Barber and not to Young or Swensen. The orchestra was pretty dry, which was appropriate accompaniment to Swensen’s playing. His playing was remarkably clear but also remarkably uninteresting beyond where he was flat or otherwise out of tune. This was another occasion, like with the Jonathan Biss performance a year ago, that I regretted sitting so close because of the unpleasant sounds that the soloist made with his mouth while playing. I found myself grateful that he wasn’t playing an encore.

On a side note: I really wish that they wouldn’t program concerti into nearly every concert. Many of the soloists are mediocre and it seems to affect the way that the rest of the concert is conducted. And it’s likely that I’m responsible for filling more seats this weekend’s concerts than Swensen is. They could have saved money on a soloist and just programmed all orchestral music, which probably would have sounded better. In fact, I think that they could easily do this for half of the concerts each year and then they could afford to pay the musicians better and dramatically improve recruitment and retention, which would improve the sound of the orchestra even more.

After intermission, the orchestra and Young came back for Dvorák’s symphony “From the New World.” This is one of the most exciting pieces of music in the repertoire and it’s kind of hard to go wrong with it. It was certainly enjoyable, but there was little that was remarkable about this particular performance. The second movement came out very well, with a certain Wagnerian flair brought to the forefront. Beyond that, the big parts were big the themes that are hummable were hummable and it was enjoyable, though it could have been amazing.

This is the third concert in a row that has left me feeling non-plussed. I’m genuinely hopeful that the Elgar and Vaughan Williams concert in November will turn this around: I really look forward to hearing the ASO Chorus perform “A Sea Symphony.”

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