Some might say the Tucson Symphony Orchestra took a big risk programming minimalist composers John Adams and Philip Glass alongside Beethoven on Friday night. What possible connection could the audience draw from the pairing?
But by the end of the night, when guest conductor Andrew Grams took his third bow before a standing hall of about 1,300 people, it made perfect sense.
Adams’ “The Chairman Dances” and Glass’s Double Concerto for Violin and Cello felt like spin-offs of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major despite that they were separated by hundreds of years.
The easy answer is that all three were dance works: “The Chairman Dances,” an outtake of Adams’ landmark opera “Nixon in China,” captures a scene where Madame Mao does a seductive dance after crashing a presidential banquet; Glass’s Double Concerto was originally meant for the “Swan Song” ballet by choreographers Sol Léon and Paul Lightfoot; and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, which had no clear dance motive in its creation, has the constant movement of a dance.
The hard answer is that the TSO wanted to think outside the box and take us along for the ride. Thankfully, with Grams at the podium, the ride went pretty smoothly.
Grams, who gave a quick synopsis of how the works loosely tied together before the concert, led the orchestra on a fluid and spirited performance of “The Chairman Dances,” whose simple arpeggios contrast with halting melodic lines to create distinct dance tunes. It was the first time the orchestra had ever played the piece.
Violinist Tim Fain and cellist Wendy Sutter, in their TSO debuts, were first rate in Glass’s Double Concerto, which should not surprise anyone: Glass composed the piece for Sutter and she and Fain recorded it in 2010.
Having the pair share the Tucson Music Hall stage to recreate that chemistry and sound was thrilling. The Double Concerto moves from intimate give and take between violin and cello then opens up to the full orchestra. It was during those intimate passages that we came to appreciate just how big a deal it was to have Fain and Sutter performing for us. They showed off an instinctual and passionate connection to the piece that went beyond just knowing the work.
(Not surprisingly, the pair did not perform an encore; that would have been difficult since they rarely play together. So the TSO performed its own, a rousing “Happy Birthday” to colleague Ann Weaver, the TSO’s principal violist.)
Friday also was the first time the TSO had played the Double Concerto. But the orchestra is no stranger to Beethoven’s Seventh; the last time the ensemble played it was in 2007.
The No. 7 was a true test of Grams’ mettle as a conductor. (He joins a roster of guest conductors who will be vying for outgoing Music Director George Hanson’s job.) The piece has very few stops and while it is not nearly as bombastic as Beethoven’s’ venerable Fifth Symphony, it is a rollercoaster of a ride. It calls for a conductor up to the physical as well as the intellectual challenges of floating from melodic lines to whirling dance melodies. The string section swaps themes with the wind section; the percussion kicks in with its full arsenal and then returns the melody to the strings to start all over again.
It would have been great to see the expression on Grams’ face as he kept the orchestra on pace. A few times his lips moved, as if he were saying something to the violinists. He waved his cupped left hand as if coaxing them for more while tapping out the time with the baton in his right. Several times he raised both hands above his head with and looked like he was about to shout hallelujah.
The performance was terrific and his energy was infectious, earning him a prolonged standing ovation from the audience. The orchestra also applauded him, vigorously tapping their bows when he took his bow.