If you’re a football fan and pay attention to half-time entertainment, you’ve probably heard music by Jerry Bilik. The American composer seems to have written more marches than Sousa and, in his spare time, he’s also composed much of the music for Disney on Ice. Bilik, who now lives in Sarasota, has turned his hand to the classical side of music writing and his “Symphony in M-L” had its premiere at the Van Wezel on the Sarasota Orchestra’s Masterworks II series, under the direction of guest conductor, Perry So.
The “M-L” in the symphony’s title stands for “Modus Lascivus,” a row of notes that follow one of the ancient modal scales (think white notes, only, on the piano) that was thought to be lascivious in the olden days. But there’s nothing lewd about this work. In fact, unless you know the basis for its construction (and even if you do), you won’t really hear the M-L scale. What does come across is a propulsive, percussive work in three movements that is bi-tonal, colorful and very reminiscent of music by Bernstein, Copland, Gould and even Beethoven. Hey – if you’re going to pay homage to composers, you might as well use the best.
The outer movements are extremely rhythmic with great blasts of brass, while the middle movement, marked Andante, is gentle, ethereal and has the mystic aura of an Avatar-type movie. The Sarasota Orchestra, conducted by Perry So, seemed to nail the perpetual motion of much of the piece, giving us a rousing first hearing that was both accessible and striking.
The Sibelius Violin Concerto is a sensual, hot-blooded, virtuosic work that leads both the soloist and the orchestra on a sonorous soundscape that’s become a staple in the violin repertory. Leila Josefowicz was the soloist with the Orchestra and, after a promising start in which she built a beautiful crescendo in her opening line, the violinist seemed to lose her sense of tone and pitch, leaving us with a feeling that she was working exceptionally hard and making very little of the piece.
Josefowicz seemed to press too hard on the strings and, the harder she dug in, the less tone she gave, as the pitch slipped and her runs became messy and inconsistent. Perhaps it was an off day. Or maybe she needed to rework the piece so it was more in her fingers. Whatever the reason, there was little the Orchestra and So could do to clean up her problematic performance.
Fortunately, Beethoven’s “Eroica,” the massive and music-changing Symphony Number 3, saved the day and the second half of the program was a breath of freshness and excellent playing. I prefer the opening movement to be a little less fast but So had a good model in mind, working with slim vibratos from the strings and a Classical sense of style that could have been attributed to late Mozart or even earlier Beethoven.
The Funeral March (second movement) was properly mournful and heartrending, while the final two movements had the tension and organ-like tones that wrung richness from the Orchestra, which was reseated for this symphony, with the strings split, downstage right and left, cellos in the middle and basses upstage right.
Perry So is a dynamic young conductor with much to offer an orchestra. His beat is clear, he doesn’t over-conduct, he’s an excellent accompanist, he breathes with his phrases, and he’s able to bring the best out of his musicians. These traits were most evident in the Sibelius “Valse Triste,” which served as the concert’s encore. Here we heard the versatility of this excellent ensemble, taking them from a whisper of a pianissimo to large, never forced and beautiful fortes. It will be interesting to follow his career.