SINFONIETTA REVIEW: ‘He still had plenty of pedal left’

Our “Little Orchestra That Does” was absolutely doing it big time at its weekly concert on Sunday, July 31 with a very well balanced program by American composers past and present at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts.

Officially known as the Lake Placid Sinfonietta, under the direction of Stuart Malina, this potent ensemble of 20 musicians grabbed its audience by the collar with its first piece, composed by 40-year-old Jessie Montgomery and didn’t let go until the very final note of the evening.

Ms. Montgomery was born on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, her father a musician and her mother a theater performer and storyteller. Both were very active in social movements beginning in the 1980s as they brought their daughter, the future composer, along to experience it to where advocacy has become part of her life along with composing, educating and performing.

Her piece, simply titled, “Strum,” features lots of pizzicato (plucked) notes instead of those played with the bow. The rhythms of these plucked notes as written in the music could have fried the brains of lesser musicians struggling to figure them out fast enough to keep up with the music’s brisk pace. At times it may have seemed overly complex and disjointed, but when listened to as a whole it all seemed right and proper with a very joyful and energetic feel to it that was also meaningful and even danceable.

Aaron Copland, “the dean of American composers,” was up next with “Music for the Movies,” five excerpts from his various movie scores. Nicely varied with some humor thrown in along with a big strong finish, this medley seemed welcome and appropriate for this all-American themed program.

Mr. Malina commented that many composers over the decades have tried composing movie scores because it has always paid well and exposed the music to larger audiences. It seemed to be a good fit for Copland but not so much for his young admirer and protg Leonard Bernstein who did the music for “On the Waterfront.” As much of that movie wound up on the cutting room floor, Bernstein was not especially pleased that all of his music he had composed for it wound up on the floor as well.

In a February 1943 letter written from Samuel Goldwyn Studios in Los Angeles to his young friend, Copland wrote, “Everyone seems very pleased to have me around – including the Big Boss, Goldwyn himself. I may even be writing some songs with Ira Gershwin as lyricist.”

Hollywood life could also be rather confining as Mr. Goldman refused to let Copland visit New York to attend a concert at Town Hall given in his honor in which he was supposed to perform a piano sonata of his. He asked Bernstein to cover the sonata for him on about a day’s notice. Bernstein “practiced madly for a day,” he wrote to another friend. Among the glowing reviews he received included this one from a short-lived left-leaning paper that said he “played the Sonata with all the devotion and skill the composer himself was unable to bring to it.”

The following piece, “O Magnum Mysterium,” has a fair number of iterations with the same title by various composers at least as far back as Palestrina, born in 1525. Its intent is to evoke the awe and wonderment felt by the surrounding animals at the nativity scene on the first Christmas day as they gazed at the newborn baby Jesus lying in the manger. The version played last Sunday was written in 1994 by Morton Johannes Lauridsen, a native of the Pacific Northwest and a one-time forest fire fighter.

His music has been described as mystical, serene and probing. “O Magnum Mysterium” has its share of close dissonant harmonies to add some tension usually relieved by a nice resolution. There is also a certain feeling of reassurance about it that seems to say to those who are troubled to just relax. Let go of your fears. It’ll be OK in the end.

As the featured soloist, Concertmaster Daniel Szasz added an extra dimension of all these elements into the piece plus a hefty dose of intensity that kept his audience spellbound.

Mr. Szasz followed it up with Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me.” The familiarity of the piece made it seem as if he had just delivered your long lost best friend right to your door after many years with no communication. Just as he has done in the past, Mr. Szasz demonstrated how a musician doesn’t need to plug in those three hackneyed ingredients of high, loud and fast to connect with his audience.

But just in case there may have been any doubt in anyone’s mind as to whether he was up to the task of covering those three ingredients, before anybody could say, “Look yonder comin’,” that Orange Blossom Special started pulling out of the station.

Orchestra musicians a bunch of stuffed shirts? Not this bunch.

Mr. Szasz seemed to challenge his fellow train riders to a game of “Catch Me If You Can.” Just when it seemed as if his speed had leveled off with his foot to the floor allowing the others to catch up and get on the same beat with him, he’d show them he still had plenty of pedal left yet and go roaring off like Road Runner to a new blistering tempo. This must have happened maybe three times throughout the piece. When he finally did seem to run out of pedal, he brought it home with a snappy variation on the shave-and-a-haircut ending.

Go ahead, Charlie Daniels. Just try and take this man’s instrument out of his hands, saw the crap out of “Black Mountain Rag” on it until about half the strings on his bow fall off, then hand it back to him and say, “That’s how ya do it, son.”

I dare you.

The evening ended on a fun note as Leigh Barrett came onstage to narrate Stephen Paulus’s “Voices from the Gallery.” This interesting piece is like a tour through an art museum with each piece of art projected on the back wall for all to see.

Instead of explaining the pieces to the gallery of onlookers, Ms. Barrett portrayed the various characters in each painting from the sturdy old farmer with his pitchfork in “American Gothic” to Mona Lisa herself. She didn’t just read the narration but actually acted out the characters with the narration serving as her script. Appearing to be just a natural born character in her own right, Ms. Garrett was up to the task.

The music, meanwhile, which serves more as incidental music still sounds strong enough to stand up on its own without distracting from the narration. Paulus was born in New Jersey but spent most of his life in St. Paul until he died in 2014 at age 65.