There is a version of 55 degrees Fahrenheit that feels sunny, fresh and exhilarating, and another version that nips sharply at you as you walk, rattling flagpoles and whistling through alleys. Tonight’s version was the latter. Despite that biting wind, patrons dug out the fleece jackets and long sleeves for the street party in front of Robinson that opened Arkansas Symphony Orchestra’s “Beethoven & Blue Jeans,” (7:30 p.m. Sat., April 13 and 3 p.m. Sun., April 14) with music from the Episcopal Collegiate School Steel Band, bratwursts and a craft beer tent. And why not? We turn up for football games in far, far worse conditions without thinking twice.
After the street party, the most dogged (and the most bundled-up) caught the show for free on the lawn of the Arkansas Arts Center, where a screen simulcast the concert to a couple dozen people perched in camp chairs or reclining on blankets.
In a change to the program sequence, the ASO began with Maurice Ravel’s
“Mother Goose” Suite
(“Ma Mere l’Oye”), the kickoff for this concert’s installment of the Canvas Festival, a series funded by an ArtWorks grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
It’s a little strange to hear the hum of cars along 9th Street alongside the mysterious climbing stairs of the “Tom Thumb” movement, but it worked; here’s hoping the weather this time around doesn’t dissuade the ASO from offering more of these free public simulcasts in the future. The stunner here, though, was the final movement of the Ravel suite; lush and towering, as if the orchestra had been instructed to save all of their energy for release in these final, mammoth strides. People went nuts for the soloists when the last note ended, and hearing the whole thing through huge speakers might have been just as impactful — or more so — than hearing it in the concert hall.
ASO’s Composer of the Year Adam Schoenberg took the stage afterward in what he called his “first time ever in blue jeans on a ‘subscription’ stage.’“ In introducing Schoenberg, ASO Conductor Philip Mann counted him among the “stalwart, staunch pillars of new music” that the ASO had hosted as resident composers in years past; Jennifer Higdon, Dan Visconti), and Schoenberg’s “Finding Rothko" made it clear why.
This listener headed back to the concert hall for the second half, where 39-year principal contrabassoonist Ray Hankins was acknowledged for his tenure (“the first time in classical music history that a contrabassoonist has ever gotten a curtain call,” Mann quipped). Then, painter and former Razorback football defensive end Barry Thomas took the stage in a beret, slyly mimicking a cue for the first note of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (the “Pastorale” symphony) with his paintbrush as a baton, then swiping a streak of lime green across his canvas, projected onto a screen on stage behind the ASO.
Over the course of the next forty or so minutes, that swath of green disappeared and reappeared under pockets of reds and oranges as the orchestra drifted through this piece's silky webs. Mann dubbed Symphony No. 6 “a hundred years ahead of its time” when it premiered as part of a monumental 1808 concert in Vienna, ushering in the eventual arrival of painterly impressionism. The work is remarkably light on horns, save for some well-placed French horns and judiciously employed trumpet and trombone. Because of that sparse brass, the oboes and clarinets seemed almost declamatory and metallic in context.
Thomas' accompanying painting was, by agreement between the artist and the musicians, not predetermined. Structures emerged and then disappeared behind a broad brushstroke, with Thomas pausing between each movement when the music stopped. It was, as Mann put it, “an immediate result of the sound that he hears. None of us know what it will look like and tomorrow, he’s gonna do it again and it’ll be a completely different painting.”