Mendelssohn, marimba and Nintendo NES: ASO's chamber series charmed at the Clinton Center | Rock Candy

Mendelssohn, marimba and Nintendo NES: ASO's chamber series charmed at the Clinton Center

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ASO Principal Percussionist Blake Taylor in a performance of Charles Hawthorne's "Hero's Ascent for Marimba" - STEPHANIE SMITTLE
  • Stephanie Smittle
  • ASO Principal Percussionist Blake Taylor in a performance of Charles Hawthorne's "Hero's Ascent for Marimba"

Framed by the ever-darker blues of the western sky over downtown little Rock, members of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra delivered (brilliantly) a program in the Great Hall of the Clinton Presidential Center that was as demanding as it was quirky, with works from Mendelssohn and living composers Eric Ewazen and Charles Hawthorne, the latter of whom was in attendance.

The concert, part of the ASO's River Rhapsodies Chamber Series, is a continuation of the Canvas Festival which, a press release in advance of the concert said, "combines visual arts with the performance of live symphonic music, allowing both art forms to influence the experiences of audiences and musicians," and is made possible by an ArtWorks grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Works by Bryan Frazier, Daniella Napolitano, Larry Crane and Daniel Adams were displayed in the lobby outside the Great Hall prior to the concert.

First up was Mendelssohn's String Quartet No. 3 in D Major, which cellist Ethan Young introduced by describing the various tactics composers like Mendelssohn used to carve out a place for themselves in the long shadow cast by Beethoven who, he pointed out, had "raised the bar to dizzying heights."

Dance-orchestra analogies are tired, I know, and we probably invented ballet so we could go ahead and materialize them instead of fumbling around with them in the world of words, but hearing the Rockefeller String Quartet play this Mendelssohn piece was like watching two tango partners who knew exactly when to dip this way or that way in complete unity of purpose. The brilliance of this ensemble is their collective sense of where the stronger beats are not in each measure, but in each overarching phrase. The engine room of the chamber outfit — Young's cello and Katherine Reynolds' viola — formed a rhythm section that could, at turns, tiptoe or march according to Mendelssohn's suggestion, and they allowed violinists Trisha McGovern Freeney and Katherine Williamson to glide and flutter around gloriously on top. Interesting, too, was what this hall's acoustic did for the lower instruments. At times, Reynolds' viola came across as almost hornlike in its clarity of direction, and Young's cello broadcast a dozen colors and tones that we often miss out on hearing in the context of larger orchestral works.

After intermission came the 8-bit fireworks. Wearing a T-shirt with the Nintendo NES controller symbol and the caption "Classically Trained," ASO Principal Percussionist Blake Taylor introduced the world premiere of "Hero's Ascent for Marimba," a duet between marimba and electronics that Charles Hawthorne composed by using the same software used to render music composed for Nintendo NES. "This was finished.....last week," Taylor explained, and Hawthorne had traveled to Little Rock from Dallas to be in attendance, getting waylaid and eventually catching a plane into Fayetteville and driving down for the occasion. (He made it.) And, as Taylor explained, the "hero" bit in the title may be indicative of what's required to play the thing at all; as he put it, the musical limitations of humans and machines do not exactly overlap in convenient ways. Taylor got a laugh from the crowd when he looked down at his marimba and noted the tempo at which the NES software requires "Hero's Ascent" to be played, adding dryly, "And there's nothing I can do to change that."

How on God's green Earth Taylor kept up with rests, pickup notes and downbeats with no humans around to signal such with body language or preparatory breaths, I'll never know. He did it, though, and it was a furiously acrobatic ten minutes. (Let me cast my vote, too, for reprising a performance of this piece in its proper context; the delicate blossom lighting fixtures in the Great Hall outfitted with multi-color strobe lights, the marimba miked hot as all hell and the Nintendo sounds turned up to 11, rave-style.)

Finally, oboist Lorraine Duso Kitts led a performance of Eric Ewazen's mysterious, enchanting "Down a River of Time," a three-movement work for oboe and strings. Hardly a more organic counterpart could have followed the marimba-electronica, and with such a solid underpinning from Kiril Laskarov, Algimantas Staskevicius, Tatiana Kotcherguina, Stephen Feldman and Barron Weir, Duso Kitts' oboe acted as bandleader, her gestures broadcasting the direction of so many supple phrases. I don't know what Ewazen's "hopes and dreams and sorrows and memories of tomorrow" are, but over the course of the movements so named, the front-and-center oboe gave off every tender, delicate quality of spring. If there is a sound to accompany the image of a fawn dipping an exploratory toe into a ray of sunlight for the very first time in its life, it's the sound of the oboe in this Ewazen piece.

If you've yet to attend a chamber concert from your local symphony orchestra, remedy that if you can. It's a chance to witness the players doing things they can't do in the larger ensemble on the Robinson Center Performance Hall stage, and a chance to hear them speak firsthand about some of the fascinating chamber music they're playing.





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