Orchestra’s stirring ‘Triptych’ is a fusion of color and sound

Louisville Courier Journal, KY
March 19 2004

Orchestra’s stirring ‘Triptych’ is a fusion of color and sound

By ANDREW ADLER – March 19, 2004
[email protected]
The Courier-Journal

In a program note meant to accompany his “New England Triptych,”
William Schuman writes of how his 1956 work forges a “fusion of
styles and musical languages” with 18th-century composer William

It’s not too much of a leap to make a similar comparison of Aram
Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto, except here the fusion is not with a
single composer, but with an entire tradition of Armenian folk music.

Both pieces, however, speak powerfully in purely symphonic terms, and
they made for an exceptionally engaging first half of yesterday’s
U.S. Bank Coffee Concert at the Kentucky Center. If you crave a
molten swirl of instrumental color and texture, this was definitely
the kind of stuff to get your blood boiling. Whatever the ethnic
context, music director Uriel Segal made what could have been an odd
stylistic transition seem like the most sensible thing in the world.

Schuman is a bedrock composer of 20th-century America, and his “New
England Triptych” has long been among his most successful creations.
No wonder – the music has immediate, undeniable appeal as it moves
through a trio of Billings’ hymn treatments. The score has the sure
hand of a composer who understands how to bend commonplace elements
to uncommon benefit.

Few would describe the “Triptych” as especially demanding of
listeners – yet it speaks with freshness hearkening back to early
American musical practice, and reaching forward toward a universally
embraceable contemporary idiom.

The work’s second and third movements are particularly fine.
Yesterday’s account was at its strongest in these portions. Billings
took the hymn “When Jesus Wept” as one departure point refashioned by
Schuman in the work’s central essay. The music is achingly beautiful,
and the Louisville Orchestra’s strings played with a hushed,
sustained intensity that proved deeply affecting. Later on, during
the third-movement “Chester” hymn, Segal urged the full orchestra
forward in a blaze of crackling dynamics.

Khachaturian wrote quite a bit of orchestral literature. The appeal
of his best works, such as the big ballets “Spartacus” and “Gayane,”
have not diminished over the decades. The Violin Concerto doesn’t
rise quite to that level, coming off rather self-consciously as
appealing to the populist aesthetic sentiments of the Stalinist
regime. Still, the concerto knows how to push the right expressive

In violinist Silvia Marcovici, the orchestra had a guest soloist able
to take all that the concerto threw at her and find the elemental
worth of every page.

The concerto sometimes can seem tumultuous for its own sake, yet
Marcovici remained unfazed by Khachaturian’s frenetic surfaces. My
only real reservation was that – in playing from a score – in the
third movement she directed her attentions more toward her music
stand than toward her Whitney Hall listeners, which compromised both
the focus of her tone and the sense of connecting with listeners.

The orchestra itself played with laudable discipline, which carried
over to at least the first three movements of Beethoven’s Symphony
No. 5. Segal led this piece with brisk tempos and lean proportions,
emphasizing clarity of attack and careful sectional balances.

His argument and the orchestra’s response was laudable through the
scherzo but weakened in a final movement that resisted taking shape.
Here, the brass playing didn’t have quite the crispness heard earlier
on, and in general the phrasing broadened so that momentum – which in
the Fifth should be inexorable – was merely indefinite.