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Symphony review: DSSO’s final concert of the season was a rousing success

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Gauging by audience reaction Saturday night, the “Virtuoso” finale of the 2013-14 season of the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra was a rousing success. Without a word, Music Director Dirk Meyer ascended the podium at Symphony Hall and robustly stepped off the “Russian Sailors’ Dance” from “The Red Poppy” ballet by Reinhold Gliere. Four minutes later, the audience was enthused, and there was no turning back.

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Pianist Spencer Myer, familiar to northern Minnesota audiences, but in his first performance with the DSSO, came back on stage with Maestro Meyer. They teamed up to present the crown of Beethoven’s five piano concertos, No. 5 in E-flat major, Op.73. Meyer and Myer were  supremely smooth and graceful, offering one of the most lyrical performances of this work I’ve ever heard.

Dialogue between the piano and orchestra frequently was intimate, with a lot of shimmering back and forth between the strings and the soloist. As they approached the finale, the bassoon section offered an improvised moment, which raised the eyebrows of both pianist and conductor. After a moment of suspense and a delicate hand motion from the conductor, the pianist and orchestra resumed their teasing each other into the romping finale.

The audience erupted with overflowing enthusiasm, and the excitement of live music will never be replaced by the recording studio. As an encore, Myer shared Earl Wild’s virtuosic arrangement of the George Gershwin hit “I’ve Got Rhythm,” and gradually the house settled back in for the second half of the evening.

In the summer of 1943, following illness and diagnosis of leukemia, Hungarian composer Bela Bartok, safe in the USA from the ravages of Hitler, spent 54 very intense days creating the “Concerto for Orchestra.” This five-movement work offers challenging rhythms and harmonies to everyone in the orchestra, including the conductor. To me, this is one of the last major orchestral compositions of the 20th century to reflect the sounds and rhythms of the natural world. Ultimately, the city would gain control over the musical imagination.

Beginning with rumbling sounds, Bartok allows various instruments to peep, shout and shimmer, urging to be recognized out of the murkiness. With a sense of clarity, Meyer firmly led out of this swamp into a humorous march, led by gently dissonant trumpets and a full brass chorale. An elegiac third section offers long melodic lines and sharply punctuated outbursts, evened out by a lovely melody that gets passed back and forth all around the orchestra. This breath of fresh air pumps energy back into all the players as they gather all their resources and deliver a stunning statement of finality.

Meyer accepted two rounds of applause for his consistent leadership in this maze of beauty, then singled out individuals and sections throughout the DSSO. The applause continued until the lure of champagne and chocolate led the audience upstairs.

This first full year with Meyer has been creative and refreshing. More variety is planned in the coming months as well as in the new season starting next fall. We are very fortunate at the tip of Lake Superior to have this additional power and beauty available in the concert hall as well as out the window. I look forward to the coming musical months.

Samuel Black is a Duluth musician who thrives on live musical performances and is fortunate to be able to write about them for the News Tribune. 

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