Last night the Louisville Orchestra closed its season in the Frazier Finale, conducted by Jorge Mester and featuring trumpet great Arturo Sandoval. The program included works that may not be all that familiar to the casual fans of classical music, but when you have the opportunity to draw on the phenomenal talent of someone like Arturo Sandoval, show pieces for the trumpet are definitely a wise choice on which to anchor a concert.
Before the onstage arrival of Sandoval, the Orchestra opened with American composer William Schuman's New England Triptych, in three movements. Schuman's composition is based on the work of Revolutionary-era composer, William Billings. Schuman, a former president of the Julliard School during the 1940s, identified Billings as a major figure in American music. With a tempest brewing outside, the timpani solo introducing the first movement served to echo the rumbling thunder without and led into a quietly stirring swell of strings. The lovely second movement, "Jesus Wept," featured a bassoon and oboe duet, and the third movement brought to the fore both the hopefulness and the martial spirit of Billings' time -- the struggle of a young country in the throes of revolution. The soft beat of the snare drum conjured soldiers on the march, and indeed, the program noted that Billings original work was adopted as a marching song for the Continental Army. While this work was entirely unfamiliar to me before last night, it was one of my favorite moments of the evening.
The evening's featured artist came on stage for John William's Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra. It's hard to hear the name John Williams and not think first of his Oscar-nominated film scores. Such is his place in our cultural history that such iconic images of Indiana Jones cracking the whip in Raiders of the Lost Ark or the dark sweep of Darth Vader's cape in Star Wars -- not to mention a certain killer shark -- are forever accompanied by a Williams anthem in our heads. But that's only part of Williams' illustrious career as a composer. The piece was originally commissioned by the Cleveland Orchestra for its trumpet soloist Michael Sachs in 1996 and has been previously recorded by Arturo Sandoval with the London Symphony Orchestra.
Williams' concerto is quite different musically than the traditional heroic and romantic orchestrations that mark the film scores. It is more in the mode of what most people think of as "modern" composition with its irregular intervals, throbbing rhythms, and bursts of strings and percussion. Against this backdrop, Sandoval handled the challenging solo trumpet with his usual technical mastery, particularly in the third movement with its incredibly fast runs and intricate rhythms.
Initially the evening's program called for Mr. Sandoval's second showpiece to occur before the Intermission but was moved afterwards when, as Maestro Mester put it in his announcement of the change, Sandoval declared that he did not, in fact, have "lips of leather." In due time, Sandoval returned to the stage to perform La Virgen de la Macarena by Spanish composer Bernardino Bautista Monterde and arranged by another trumpet virtuoso, Rafael Mendez. I knew this piece (though I had to jog my memory by referring to my CD collection at home afterwards) from Sandoval's fantastic CD, Trumpet Evolution, a tribute to his favorite trumpeters of all time. It is wonderfully romantic, conjuring the the color, verve, and bravado of Spanish bullfighting arenas in days gone by. Sandoval's trumpet soared over the supporting horns and crashing cymbals with sinuous ease in a work that showed off both his dexterity and power in every range.
After this impassioned and exotic play, Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski's Concerto for Orchestra followed in rather stark contrast. As might be expected from a composer whose life encompassed both world wars and was marked by political strife and tragedy, this three-movement concerto is much darker in mood. The Intrada opened with timpani and cello and continued to build an atmosphere of threat as the strings and other instruments joined in. The second movement is faster and more intense, still maintaining a slightly menacing edge with its ominous drums, bass, and contrabassoon. Finally, the dramatic third movement, marked by dynamic bursts of strings and brass, built to its climax with the full orchestra.
On a tempestuous night, when audience members had to brave the rain and tornado watches to get to Kentucky Center, it was a strong and fitting end to the season.