Symphony Review: From delicacy to dystopia, DSSO finale thunders to dramatic season ending

The Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra presented its final Masterworks concert of the season Saturday night.

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Guest Artist, Pianist Peter Serkin performs with the DSSO. Photo by Dennis Kempton

The Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra presented its final Masterworks concert of the season Saturday night at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center's Symphony Hall to a full and appreciative audience. Once again under the baton of Music Director Dirk Meyer, the orchestra's program, "Reflections" featured a repertoire that included works from Leonard Bernstein, Beethoven and Mussorgsky.

Composed in 1961, Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from the legendary West Side Story is an aural treat - a suite of orchestral music from the show. At turns playful, swinging, romantic, aggressive and wistful, this amuse-bouche course of the program set a tone that, once again, masterfully encouraged the musicians to pull out all the stops. The challenge of setting the orchestral arrangements is preserving the dramatic tension and the dance atmospherics of the show. The orchestra's vibrant and energetic treatment delighted the audience with the finger-snapping and vocals of the Prologue setting up the hall to feel like a jazz club par excellence. The rhythms were tight and slick. The percussion section got their chance to shine and the DSSO demonstrated its significant chops as a bona fide concert band.

The delicacy of the night's music came on the wings of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2, featuring guest artist, the incomparable Peter Serkin. This 18th century classical masterpiece, scored for a solo piano, was supported by gorgeous strings, oboes, horns, bassoons and a playful flute. Its juxtaposition between the contemporary coolness of Bernstein and the moody and dramatic Mussorgsky is a genius preservation of its serenity and emotional playfulness as symphonic music.

Virtuoso pianist Peter Serkin comes with a distinguished pedigree. A Grammy winner at the tender age of 19, Serkin knew how to demonstrate ultimate showmanship coupled magnificently with musicianship on the stage with the DSSO. At moments, Serkin's captivating performance floated notes into the air that seemed to be so delicate that the strings and horns were perceived to caress and protect their fragility. Meyer's gentle coaxing and respect for the concerto's subtleties made one capable of believing that classical musicians are interpreters of a divinely inspired message.


The dramatic finale of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition took the hall from heights of delightful fancy to the depths of dystopian despair. Written originally for piano in 1874, the DSSO performed the more widely-known Ravel arrangement from 1922. The suite is almost full-on Kabuki-style drama in the way that only Russian art can pull off. The music was set to an accompanying film produced by the USC School of Cinematic Arts in an animation of the themes and images that inspired the composer's music.

This suite is truly made with a love for trumpets and brass and the DSSO displayed no modesty whatsoever in showing their majesty with those instruments. The childish delights of the Ballet of the Chickens in their Shells as well as the darkness of The Hut on Fowl's Legs took the audience on a full-scale symphonic rollercoaster of emotion, pulled and lifted at turns by strings and percussion and then again, those trumpets. The Great Gate of Kiev and its accompanying visual luminosity and the explosions of instrumentation in the hall overwhelmed so purposefully by the composer that when all came to its thundering concluding notes, the audience rose in sustained, cheering applause worthy of Russian drama.

The DSSO ended its 2017 season in grand style, delivering emotional punches and delicate sumptuousness that made it all priceless beyond the price of admission, carried by musicians that know how to put on a good show in more ways than just with their instruments.

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