It was a calming concert at the end of a rollercoaster of a week.
On a day when there has been jubilant dancing in the streets by so many people, and the solitary reflections of many others, the DSSO concert “Afternoon Dances” on Saturday evening filled the audience’s hearts with the spirit of both the joyous and the profound.
As they did with their first concert of the season, the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra performance was offered both as a virtual, “at home” event and in-person for patrons masked and socially distanced at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.
The October concert featured only strings. On Saturday, they added woodwinds, horns, harp and percussion. The musicians and the maestro were also masked and socially distanced.
In his introduction to the concert, conductor Dirk Meyer said the evening was going to be one of “extreme contrasts.”
Their first piece, “Prelude to the Afternoon of the Faun” by French composer Claude Debussy, is based on a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé. The poem tells the story of a mythical faun (half-man and half-goat), who, on a languid afternoon, falls asleep in the woods and dreams of nymphs he had been unable to catch when awake.
Debussy’s landmark modernist and impressionist work begins with an ethereal and sensuous opening flute solo, with other wonderful featured solos from the oboe, clarinet, horn and harp. The orchestra created evocative musical imagery of the fanciful story.
Franz Joseph Haydn’s “Cello Concerto No. 1 in C Major” has a storied history. The Baroque-style piece was lost around the time it was written, somewhere between 1761 and 1765. It did not resurface until 1961. Since then, it has been recognized as the most well-known concerto for the cello.
Betsy Husby, the concerto’s cello soloist and the DSSO’s principal cellist for 35 years, had a tour-de force performance that was breathtaking through the moderato, adagio and allegro three movements. The “conversation” between the cello and the orchestra made this the highlight of the evening. Husby deservedly took a second bow for the appreciative audience.
“Fratres” by Arvo Pärt, a living Estonian composer, was written for string orchestra and percussion. Meyer described the work as minimalistic and meditative.
The music is at turns otherworldly, haunting and majestic. Pärt called his distinctive technique and style tintinnabulation, “like a bell.” The percussion added to the dramatic and stirring nature of the piece.
The evening concluded with the truest dance piece of the concert, “Danses Concertantes” by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. With his title, Stravinsky made clear that it was written for dance performance. George Balanchine, Stravinsky’s friend and colleague, created two ballets set to this music.
Meyer invited the audience to imagine, with each different section of the work, what the “cast of characters” of the dancers might be based on the music. From the variations on the themes, one could visualize the stage filled with costumed ballet dancers swirling to the inimitable Stavinsky style.
Described as an evening of “captivating melodies and driving rhythms,” the concert lived up to its billing, providing a welcome respite in these stressful times.
If you ‘go’
What: DSSO’s “Afternoon Dances” concert
When: Streaming online at dsso.com
Tickets: $25 for all three streaming concerts: Oct. 17, Nov. 7 and Dec. 5
Sheryl Jensen is a former teacher, magazine editor and director. She reviews theater for the News Tribune.