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Hara wows at DSSO

Saturday's performance of Austrian music by the Duluth-Superior Symphony Orchestra was a study in contrasts -- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Clarinet Concerto in A Major and Anton Bruckner's Symphony No. 4 in E-flat Major, to be exact.

Saturday's performance of Austrian music by the Duluth-Superior Symphony Orchestra was a study in contrasts -- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Clarinet Concerto in A Major and Anton Bruckner's Symphony No. 4 in E-flat Major, to be exact.

The Mozart piece featured Burt Hara, principal clarinetist of the Minnesota Orchestra, and he alone would have made braving the cold worthwhile.

Many kinds of artists will tell you that working in constraints is sometimes the best way to free up creativity -- the poet working in a demanding form or the visual artist or composer working under a strict commission, for instance. This Mozart piece is like that -- measured and precise -- and not the sort of thing that lends itself to emotional outbursts or brooding or cutting loose.

Instead, in Hara's capable hands, the artistry was internal -- inside the note, inside the line. And his phrasing was so exquisite that he packed as much music into a few measures as one might find in a whole piece filled with roaring fortissimos and twirling pianissimos. Hara appeared never to take a single one of his notes off. (This is all the more remarkable considering the fits of coughing taking place in the audience.)

The orchestration called for no clarinets in the orchestra, and so one might expect to thus pick him out plainly. You could, but Hara demonstrated such control of his embouchure (basically how the mouth meets the mouthpiece) that, at times, you couldn't pinpoint the exact moment he came in. And he ended the adagio movement with just the same sense -- when, precisely, did the sound stop? Quite remarkable.

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For its part, the orchestra, despite a few early difficulties matching Hara's tempo, played nicely. The standing ovation was quick and sustained.

DSSO conductor Markand Thakar promised a remarkable experience from the 75-minute (plus) Bruckner piece, and through much of it, it delivered. Particularly the opening movement sounded almost like an Austrian Aaron Copland with ample use of brass and open chords that conveyed that sense of space -- maybe an alpine one instead of an Old West one.

Throughout the entire piece, the DSSO's stellar French horn section was exposed, with numerous solos, particularly by principal horn player James Popisil. The section was not as flawless as we have grown accustomed to, but it had wonderful moments.

The Bruckner symphony had a hodgepodge of styles that belie the biographical depiction of Bruckner as diminutive and withdrawn. If the Mozart piece is restrained, this Bruckner is gregarious. Triumphal brass chords at the end of the first movement were followed by a more subdued cello melody at the beginning of the second. From Oriental-sounding themes to schmaltzy, romantic harmonies, Bruckner supplied it.

Maybe it was my own stamina wearing down, but I have to confess that by the end of the 75 minutes, a few moments seemed repetitive -- beginning at the end of the third movement, there was a series of sections that could have passed for finales.

And during the third movement, Bruckner had little offset melodies, one section starting it and then the other joining in, and I thought the orchestra could have drawn these out more clearly.

But that sounds harsher than it should. The piece was lovely and at times called to mind the vespers services from my Lutheran college days, which featured brass choir -- particularly appropriate coming right before Lent. Several points during the Bruckner would leave any brass choir fan -- aren't all sensible people brass choir fans? -- happy.

And at the end, the big wall of sound could only provoke a smile, even if I felt I was waiting a little long for it.

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