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Music Review: LSCO sets pearls from around the world in new settings

In explaining the process by which pieces were selected for the first concert of the Lake Superior Chamber Orchestra's summer season, artistic director and conductor Warren Friesen compared it to being confronted with a vast bed of oysters. "Every once in a while I find a gem, a pearl," he told us, "and I hold it up to the light and I say I want to share it."

Not only did the LSCO share a dozen pieces of music with the audience at the College of St. Scholastica's Mitchell Auditorium on Thursday night, they offered unique adaptations of several works. Friesen did not just find pearls; he placed them in new settings to add to their luster.

The first half of the concert consisted of a whirlwind tour of folk-inspired orchestral music from around the world, beginning with the one instantly recognizable piece on the program, Aaron Copland's "Hoedown" from "Rodeo," arguably the most famous classical "fiddle" tune.

The common denominator for the first three songs were that they were about dances. Shannon Heaton's "Blue Dress Waltz" offered a lovely little swirling tune, starting with the violins and Jann Stein's harp, before being joined by the flute and oboes, then the rest of the strings. Simple and romantic, this rather sweet tune brought smiles to many of the faces sitting around me. Aleksander Tengesdal's cello set the tone for Shelley Hanson's "Freilach," a piece in keeping with the music played by Klezmer bands at weddings and bar mitzvahs.

The guest soloists, former Gaelic Storm fiddler Ellery Klein and the Ely raised Eli Bissonett, took the stage for the first time for "Romance of Hsiao and Ch'in" by Chen Yi, where their violins represented a duet between a bamboo flute and a Chinese 7-string zither (the names in the title are not of characters but the instruments). This piece got so tantalizingly slow as it developed you were tempted to hold your breath.

"Blue Rose" offered guest artist Adam Sippola on didgeridoo for Elena Kats-Chernin's piece. It takes a while for the sound of the didgeridoo to emerge, almost like you feel it more than you hear it, adding another dimension to the lower harmonics. Similarly, "Wawshishijay" by Obo Addy had a quartet of percussionists playing African instruments. The orchestra sounded a bit like a steel drum at times, and some members had the opportunity to sing. This was one of those pieces where the rhythm is going to get you.

"Coqueteos," the finale piece of Lena Gabriela Frank's "Leyendas: An Andrean Walkabout," combines Andean folk music traditions with western classical music. Violinists Steve Highland and Laurie Bastian were featured on this one, and I especially liked the section where the viols and cellos took the forefront.

The four works after intermission were all recent compositions. For "Eine KLEINe Fiddlemusik," the LSCO's own Bradley Bombardier orchestrated four tunes from Klein's first solo album, "Salt and Pepper" to create a suite. This was my favorite piece of the evening, in part because it was the one where I was most aware how the music was being transformed from its original incarnation into chamber music, and in part because it was a rare opportunity to hear an artist play their own composition in a classical setting, but also because that title is obviously going to earn bonus points from me.

(For those of you about to dash off to check your Gaelic Storm CDs to see which ones had Klein playing fiddle, rest easy: the answer is "How Are We Getting Home?" and my personal favorite "Bring Yer Wellies." She is also immortalized on the group's concert DVD "Live in Chicago.")

"Gauze of Misted Silver" for harp and strings, was composed by Justin Merritt, setting Amy Lowell's poem "Venus Transiens" to music, albeit without the words. The second movement with its strumming strings was fascinating. Most of the violinists were nodding their heads in rhythm, while a couple of the violists tapped their toes. The final section featured Stein's harp before it slowed down, hanging just between being luxurious and becoming lumbersome.

The showcase finale was Nickitas Demo's "Long Journey Home": A Double Concerto for Celtic Fiddle and Bluegrass Fiddle. The opening movement, "Hard Rain Comin'', focused on Klein's Celtic fiddle. Bissonett responded, each artist overlapping the other rather than playing in tandem until the end of the piece where they got to go at each other and drive the concluding crescendo.

The regional differences in fiddle playing disappears in the slower second movement, "No Time Left to Be Young," which gets rather celestial sounding early on. There was a nice moment where Brett Linsky's oboe hands off the theme to Bissonett, and another between the violin and Tyler Kaiser's guitar.

With "Reunion" Bissonett goes into full bluegrass mode in a section that had elements I found quite reminiscent of "Orange Blossom Special." There was not as much dueling between the two fiddle styles as the title of the piece led me to expect, but that final section was another highpoint of the concert.

The acoustics of the venue were excellent overall, although there were times when Kaiser's guitars could have used a bit more amplification and the xylophone could have been brought down a couple of notches on this piece. The evening ended with a charming little encore in which the guest soloists were joined by the local folk duo the OK factor, Olivia Hahn (cello) and Karla Dietmeyer (violin), who were sitting in with the orchestra.

In addition to their work in the concert, Klein and Bissonett both participated in LSCO's Fiddlemania workshop earlier this week and will be playing again, along with the OK factor, at the group's Summer St. Paddy's silent auction event on Friday night at Dubh Linn's Irish Pub.

This was the first of four consecutive Thursday night concerts this month given by the LSCO, all with a 7:30 starting time. Next up on July 16 are Paul Bagley, violin, and Aleksander Tengesdal, 'cello, performing the Brahms Double Concerto in A Minor among other works at CSS's Mitchell Auditorium. Then on July 23 and 24 at UMD's Marshall Performing Arts Center, the Magic Smelt Puppet Troupe and the Lake Superior Youth Chorus join the LSCO for the world premier of "Kalileh," a Persian fable with music by Iranian composer Hooshyar Khayam.

The LSCO season finale comes on July 30, with Emily Van Evera, a Duluth native turned international recording and concert artist, singing songs by the likes of Charles Ives, Vladimír Godár, and Ján Levoslav Bella. The program will also include students of the Quartet Project and the Twin Ports Choral Project, and the evening will conclude at Mitchell Auditorium with the finale of Ives' "The Celestial Country."