The Sarasota Orchestra’s Masterworks concert this past weekend was titled “Made in America” and featured a quartet of pieces that, in one way or another, represented American culture. Fittingly, it featured an American guest conductor, Andrew Grams, who is probably — of all the guest conductors who’ve come to Sarasota in the past several years — the most technically gifted.
Interestingly, Grams is an extremely European conductor. Perhaps his work with the Cleveland Orchestra — probably the most European of all the major American symphonic ensembles — has trained him to take a more conservative approach to his conducting. Whatever it is, it serves him well except for the moments when his excellent technique stands in the way of his emotions.
Technique seemed at the forefront in the program’s first two works, starting with a charming piece called the “Tamiami Sinfonietta.” This four-movement work was composed by children from four area elementary schools who came up with inventive, catchy and fascinatingly American melodies, which Greg Smith (not to be confused with Gregg Smith, the choral conductor/composer) scored. Each movement had its own flavor ranging from a minor-key march to a jazzy, syncopated finale (with a lot of John Williams-like harmonies) and the orchestra, under Grams, gave the work a serious but exciting treatment.
Irving Fine, whose fun choruses from “Alice in Wonderland” Gloria Musicae performed a few years ago, wrote in the first half of the 20th century, turning out symphonic, chamber and vocal music that is very much of its time and place. His “Toccata concertante,” written in 1947, has an early 20th-century American sound and combines tonality with jazz, open fourths and fifths, lots of percussion and complex rhythms that make it accessible, yet interesting. Grams and the orchestra gave it a texturally layered performance that was precise but colorful.
The Piano Concerto in F was a relatively early George Gershwin work, in which the young composer hadn’t yet had the classical training he would have in the later years of his short life. Some say he was trying to prove he could write a serious classical piece and, as intricate and difficult as it may be to play, it is a fine example of American ingenuity combined with traditional European musical practices.
That’s exactly the reading it received by the orchestra with Grams and pianist William Wolfram. The first movement was particularly serious, with every note in place but a certain lack of soul. The adagio and finale, however, picked up a spark, and Wolfram’s own faultless technique carried with it some beautiful colors while Grams brought out the vast dynamic range of the orchestra, especially from the brass section.
Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” gave Grams an opportunity to feel more at home. Here, the composer’s take on American life, weaving folk songs and traditional American rhythms and melodies into a European fabric, brought the admirable musicianship of the individual Sarasota Orchestra musicians to the forefront, and there was no lack of soul this time around. Grams gave it an impassioned, gorgeous performance, highlighted by exquisite playing from all the instrumentalists, particularly the English horn solo in the slow movement, the unrivaled artistry of the French horn solos and the sensitive clarinet and cello duet in the finale.
Grams has musicianship and technique to burn. I look forward to a time when he unleashes the passion that seems simmering beneath the polish. When he does that, he’ll be at the top of the conducting pool in this country.
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