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Review: DSSO provides lots of treats in Halloween concert

If school music teachers are anything like they were in my day, some of them undoubtedly whipped out the recordings of Camille Saint-Sa?ns' "Danse Macabre" and Paul Dukas' "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," the latter possibly in the form of the Disney...

If school music teachers are anything like they were in my day, some of them undoubtedly whipped out the recordings of Camille Saint-Saëns' "Danse Macabre" and Paul Dukas' "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," the latter possibly in the form of the Disney video with Mickey Mouse chasing around a bunch of out-of-control broomsticks.
On Saturday, the grownups got a chance to enjoy the same pieces, as they opened up the Duluth-Superior Symphony Orchestra's pre-Halloween concert.
Followed up by Franz Liszt's "Totentanz" ("Dance of Death"), Sergei Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" and Richard Strauss' "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks," the show lived up to its marketing moniker of "Tricks and Treats."
For starters, they each had a seasonal theme, from the wicked sounds of Saint-Saëns to the underlying story forming the basis for "Theme of Paganini." (Paganini, a fine composer and one of the world's all-time great violinists, was reputed to have made a deal with the devil to obtain his playing skills.)
The tricks came in the form of symphonic sound effects, particularly in "Danse Macabre" and "Till Eulenspiegel."
But most notable were the treats. Many were provided by the orchestra, but the greatest of them all was the guest soloist, Jon Nakamatsu, who in the Liszt and the Rachmaninoff put on a show the likes of which I have never seen before.
Nakamatsu is the only American since 1981 to win the prestigious Van Cliburn piano competition, and his career rise has been meteoric -- not bad for a fellow who started his career as a high school German teacher and whose education credentials are a bachelor's degree in German and a master's in education.
But a few notes is all it took to hear why he is something special. To follow the Halloween theme, if you were to, Frankenstein-style, put together the perfect pianist, this creation's touch, technical mastery and artistry would have to closely resemble Nakamatsu's.
Both pieces are very technical, and Nakamatsu played them with stunning ease and grace -- during one section where he played alone, we could literally see the violin section leaning in to watch him. During runs that for the run-of-the-mill marvelous pianist would be a mush of notes, you could discern every one of his.
It was awe-inspiring.
One would be tempted to think of Paganini's story if Nakamatsu did not seem so genuinely gracious and unassuming, an impression that carried over into the question-and-answer session following the concert.
The orchestra provided many highlights of its own. Diane Balko's tuned down violin solo playing in "Danse Macabre" set the right tone, and the bassoons -- well, for whatever reason, bassoons seem to play a prominent role whenever music is supposed to be spooky, and the DSSO section, complete with a contrabassoon on a couple of pieces, stood up to the challenge.
The percussion showed its stuff on "Danse Macabre" and "Till Eulenspeigel."
And the French horns, which as conductor Markand Thakar noted post-concert is the hardest instrument in the orchestra because every note is fraught with potential disaster, were center-stage in "Till Eulenspeigel," a piece that features them prominently.
Finally, the orchestra as a whole did a masterful job on the two pieces with the soloist, matching his intensity and staying together through some challenging adventures.
(As an aside, if you are attending these concerts and not going to the post-concert sessions, I suggest you try one out the next time it's offered. This is a welcome addition, giving patrons a chance to learn about just how that pianist plays so magically or what the French horn player is really thinking about during the concert. Saturday night, we even got to learn what neighbors and wife think of the French horn player's practice schedule at home.)
All-in-all, it was a memorable concert for its tricks and its treats.
Kyle Eller is news editor for the Budgeteer News. Reach him at kyle.eller@duluth.com or 723-1207.

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