ASO: Robert Spano with Tom Sherwood & Charles Settle

I’ve only attended one or two of the ASO’s pre-concert talks that are hosted by Metzler — they aren’t bad but they also aren’t really my thing — but I went to the one this evening because, frankly, I had nothing better to do than get there early. It was actually pretty interesting: Avner Dorman, the composer of the first piece on the program, ‘Spices, Perfumes, Toxins!,’ was there to talk about his work and he was actually somewhat interesting. The piece, it seems, originated as just a percussion duo and was later expanded to become a concerto. This really showed in the piece as the orchestra merely filled out the sound a little in the first movement but played a more complementary role in the second and third movements. He said of the title that he had decided to write each movement around an idea that was both enticing and dangerous: Spices taste wonderful but, in excess, can cause digestive issues (you can tell the man is Jewish); Perfumes “seduce but can also betray;” and Toxins can be quite intoxicating as well as being deadly.

The soloists for the Dorman piece were Principal Percussionist (currently on leave) Tom Sherwood and Acting Principal Percussionist Charles Settle. Spices, Perfumes, Toxins! was originally programmed to be performed during that rather unfortunate business of the lockout last season and I was terribly disappointed that it was canceled. One of my fondest concert memories is of the two of them performing Steve Reich’s Nagoya Marimba at Sonicpalooza a few years ago and I really loved the idea of seeing the work together on a concerto like this. They certainly didn’t disappoint: the performance was excellent and I really liked the piece.

The first movement, Spice, was, indeed, very spicy. It uses middle eastern scales and a rhythmic system from India. As I mentioned above, the percussionists’ parts could easily stand alone without the orchestra. In fact, it was often difficult to hear the orchestra behind the percussionists. There was no pause before moving into Perfume, the second movement. The music for this movement was much more seductive and much more cinematic. One person whom I spoke with seemed to think it a little cheesy, but I enjoyed the sense that a fog could envelope the stage and Bogart and Bacall could wander among the musicians without seeming out of place. The final movement, Toxins(!), was rather exhilarating, though not quite as evocative or engaging as the first two movements were for me.

The Dorman piece was followed by this season’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony #5. This is a great piece but I felt it a bit too brooding to be on the same program as something like Spices, Perfumes, Toxins!. Perhaps something a bit more exciting, like Dvorak’s 7th or 9th, would have been more satisfying. The performance was good enough, though a bit dry, especially in the third movement, and maybe a little rushed at times.

I sat in the third row for this concert, which is the closest that I’ve ever been to the musicians. It was a bit odd: I couldn’t see past the percussion setup during the Dorman and during the Tchaikovsky I could only see the strings. That’s not such a big deal, though, because the sound was good, which is the important thing. I couldn’t help but notice, though, that one of the second violinists was wearing loafers with his tails. I really think that if he’s going to go that inappropriately casual with his footwear then he should go the whole way and wear black sneakers like that one first violinist. I could also hear the double basses with a lot more detail that I’m used to. I’m not sure if this was something that I normally wouldn’t be able to hear or not, but I think that one of the basses sounded a bit bright, like maybe they had a build up of rosin on the strings or were not getting the best sound from an unfamiliar instrument or something. Again, I’m not sure if there was really anything wrong or if it was just my not being used to hearing a bass from that perspective.

I decided to sit that close to avoid the issues that I had last season with rude or restless audience members. Unfortunately, it didn’t work; the couple in front of me were happy to chat within earshot of the orchestra but, even worse, the person next to me literally refused to put her phone away when asked but, instead, insisted on texting away throughout most of the Dorman piece. During the Tchaikovsky she smacked on gum loudly and arrhythmically with her mouth open and moaned, hummed, and tittered to herself throughout the piece. I honestly got the feeling that she might be a bit off balance. Hopefully it won’t be like this for the Saturday concerts — I had exchanged my normal ticket for tonight’s concert due to a scheduling conflict.

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