The “Beethoven and Blue Jeans” event has become an annual feature of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra's season. This year Beethoven was given short shrift, his music restricted to the seldom performed "Creatures of Prometheus Overture," which was the curtain raiser. It was given a spirited reading, highlighted by spritely performances by the woodwinds.
The featured work was Rimsky-Korsakov’s ever-popular "Scheherazade," a musical exploration of the Arabian Nights tales. I had heard it in live performance some years ago, but the rendition Saturday evening was like hearing it for the first time. The ensemble work was flawless. The dynamics from the softest to the loudest sections were right on. The brass choir was as good as that in any world famous orchestra. The percussion, of which I have been critical from time to time, blended with the other instruments perfectly. And the multiple solos were all exemplary. Special mention, however, must be given to Kiril Laskarov, the orchestra’s concertmaster. His solo violin represents the voice of Scheherazade throughout the piece; and his playing was sublime, especially the double stops in the final section, which were played with a superb purity of tone.
Also on the program was Tan Dun’s "Concerto for Pipa and String Orchestra," with Wu Mann as soloist. The pipa is a Chinese stringed instrument, similar to the western lute. I must admit that I approached the work without enthusiasm, but hearing the concerto was a fascinating experience. Its four movements, played practically without pause, opens with a foot stomp by the musicians followed by a bass motif introducing combined oriental and occidental sounds. There is no percussion in the instrumentation, but percussive effects are achieved throughout in the double basses and by having the members of the orchestra shout or bump. Also the violas, usually relegated to a strictly secondary role, are given a major part to play. I found the third adagio movement particularly interesting, starting as it does with a lovely European-style melody that is later given a very Asian connotation.
The orchestra players shed their usual white ties in favor of blue jeans and ASO Razorback-red T shirts. What else? The audience, mostly also in blue jeans, seemed quite a bit larger than usual. Way to go?