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Music review: DSSO’s opening ticket demonstrates musical versatility

Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra conductor Dirk Meyer. Photo by Brian Braun /

Music is, indeed, a grand adventure through time and cultures. The season theme of the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra for this season is Grand Adventures. People sitting in a packed Symphony Hall on Saturday night set sail for the opening journey — and they were not disappointed.

Music director Dirk Meyer took the stage and, as he raised his baton, I could feel the anticipation. It’s a new season, a new interim executive director and a new repertoire.  And then … Leonard Bernstein.

“Three Dance Episodes” from On the Town are part romance, part jazz-infused swinging good times, and part longing. Taken from the masterworks of America’s celebrated composer, these selections reflected a departure into the evening’s music. The pieces themselves are about sailors on shore leave in New York City. Instrumentally, they’re a chance for the orchestra’s brass section to shine, especially the horns, while pulling in that bridge between woodwinds and brass, the alto saxophone, reflecting the generosity of spirit in the 1940s-era of band music. The audience was convinced, with knees bouncing and heads bobbing in time.

Gene Koshinski, professor of percussion, and Tim Broscious, instructor of percussion and director of athletic bands at the University of Minnesota Duluth, took the hall by storm with an original double percussion concerto titled “soniChroma for 2 Percussion and Orchestra.” It would be an injustice to call the three selections the spectacle of the evening, though they were, because taken together, they’re a masterpiece. Visually compelling, the vast array of instruments was striking in its variety and diversity of sound. Musically, the three selections, “Arilyde Spark,” “Cerulean Dusk” and “Electric Amaranth” unleashed a torrent of percussion and brass notes crashing through the hall before washing up on the shores of gentle touches from non-Western instrumentation. The setup featured more than 70 instruments. Writing about the music scarcely does it justice. It was spellbinding, a triumph for the orchestra. Interestingly, its enormous presence and vitality stole the show.

Poor Sibelius had to come to the stage as a follow-up. Don’t get me wrong. Jean Sibelius is one of the icons of symphonic music. And, after the explosion of music in the first part of the evening, coming back after intermission to the traditional repertoire of the classical composer was a definite new trek on the night’s tour.

The composer’s Symphony No. 1, op. 39, E Minor is a revision of the original work. The original has not survived, scrapped in 1900 after Sibelius made changes following the premier. It leads with a long and beautifully melancholy clarinet solo over a gentle timpani, and then opens up brightly and romantically with strings. The orchestra’s treatment of each movement showcases its ultimate commitment to classical music in its most inspiring and exacting beauty. This symphony is full of tragedy and fury expressed with gorgeous string and woodwind solos punctuated by bold brass and percussion.

Sailing North, the DSSO’s opening ticket, demonstrated, again, the musical versatility of our symphony orchestra and its dedication to classical form. But it also invited the audience to journey into the sublime and, often, mystical power of non-Western instrumentation, culminating in an aural diversity in ports of call on a most intriguing trip around symphonic music’s emotional pull.

Dennis Kempton is a Duluth-based freelance arts and culture writer.