A Season of Surprises
Keith Emerson: Piano Concerto #1
Johann Sebastian Bach: Concerto for 2 Violins, BWV 1043
Ferde Grofé: Grand Canyon Suite
1 Jeffrey Biegel, piano
2 Debbie Williamson & Kevin McMahon, violins
Sheboygan Symphony Orchestra/Kevin McMahon
Sheboygan, WI, Stefanie H. Weill Center for the Performing Arts, 3 October 2015
The most notable part of this concert was the Piano Concerto by Keith Emerson (b. 1944) and its enthusiastic reception by the large audience. What is especially noteworthy is that the first movement, Allegro Giojoso, begins and ends with a tone row, inspired by Emerson's study of Arnold Schoenberg. The Sheboygan audience took this in stride. So what if there was a tone row? But consider that Sheboygan, a city of fifty thousand, fifty miles north of Milwaukee, is an industrial area and that Schoenbergian style has never been known to arouse much enthusiasm in audiences anywhere. Asked afterwards if he would have anticipated such a response to twelve-tone music from this audience prior to accepting his present position, Maestro McMahon shook his head silently but happily. Actually, in his first few years in Sheboygan, McMahon has improved the playing quality of this nearly one hundred year old civic orchestra notably. Another factor in the enthusiastic reaction to this piano concerto was the powerful performance by the distinguished soloist Jeffrey Biegel. The Emerson is a high energy work.
Actually, the Emerson concerto is not entirely twelve-tone. Even the first movement has a rhapsodic clarinet passage, a solemn brass chorale, and a "stately yet lively and very English march with baroque flourishes," as the program note by Joseph Milicia has it. The short second movement, Andante molto cantabile, is songlike. The finale, Toccata con fuoco, is hard-driving and agitated, with some syncopation. The sheer energy exhibited here brought the audience to its feet, with yelling even.
The Bach concerto was significant on this occasion chiefly because it was the swan-song of the retiring concert-master after several decades of service to the orchestra. She played it with the conductor as second violin, and it was a celebratory occasion for her.
The concluding work was the Grand Canyon Suite, which was a showpiece for the full orchestra, with more than fifteen percussion instruments, including a wind machine and thunder sheet.
Copyright © 2015, R. James Tobin