Recap: Grand Rapids Symphony's wide-ranging program takes your breath away

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk

The music of Johannes Brahms isn’t an appetizer.

Brahms of the 1880s, the mature master of the German Romantic era at the height of his creative powers, is a main course, served on a silver platter on major holidays and important family gatherings.

Under normal circumstances, the Grand Rapids Symphony wouldn’t begin a concert with a Brahms Symphony. Not unless it also was the end of the concert.

But a music director search isn’t a normal circumstance, so guest conductor Carlos Izcaray opened Friday evening’s concert with Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 and ended it with Claude Debussy’s “La Mer.” 

Izcaray, recently appointed music director of the Alabama Symphony Orchestra, made his Grand Rapids debut on Friday, the sixth of eight guest conductors appearing in DeVos Hall this season, one of whom will become the next music director of the Grand Rapids Symphony. The program in the Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series repeats at 8 pm tonight with a pre-concert conversation, “Upbeat,” at 7 pm. 

You have but one chance to make a first impression and a first impression is paramount, so plenty was packed into this weekend’s program. The Venezuelan-born conductor, who graduated from high school at Interlochen Arts Academy, proved adept on the podium while commanding a broad range of very substantial music. 

The Grand Rapids Symphony deftly handled a program heavy on contrast with late 19th century German romanticism and early 20th century French impressionism plus a 21st century setting by American composer Peter Lieberson of texts in Spanish by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. 

The necessary range of expression and gesture needed, and of orchestral color and articulated nuance required, was rather like every member of the Grand Rapids Symphony had to appear in several different roles, in the same stage play, all on the same night. If you think about it long enough, it’ll take your breath away. 

Izcaray, who conducted both the Brahms and the Debussy without a score, was a capable collaborator and interpreter, employing an impressive range of gesticulations to convey his intentions, most of them crystal clear. The Brahms’ Third Symphony opened hesitantly but picked up steam. Delightful interplay between winds and strings followed in the second movement. The beautiful third movement was given its due with enchanting expressions exchanged across the ensemble. Precision and poise led by Izcaray doing a little dance on the podium left the audience satisfied in its aftermath.  

“La Mer” is a favorite of many musicians, in no small part because it’s seldom performed. In a larger part because “The Sea” is astonishingly evocative in how its three, short, symphonic sketches portray the subtleties of the glint of sun on the water, the effects of wind rolling across the waves, and the elemental power of nature at work. 

In the comfortable surroundings of DeVos Hall, Friday’s audience listened to Debussy paint a sonic picture that had occasional similarities to the blustery winds concertgoers had experienced outdoors that caused power outages and traffic light failures across the area. Izcaray conjured tricks from the ensemble, occasionally pulling the odd rabbit out of a hat. Other times he ruled the waves with his baton as Poseidon would brandish a trident. Friday’s performance was illuminating. 

Audience applause following “La Mer” was modest. Notably, a standing ovation did not appear until Izcaray re-emerged on stage. In between the two works came Peter Lieberson’s “Neruda Songs,” a setting of five love poems, skillfully scored to make ample use of a full orchestra while allowing the singer to be heard. 

Mezzo soprano Katherine Pracht’s rich, well-mannered voice was a pleasure to hear declaiming the Spanish texts by the Nobel Prize-winning poet. Nonetheless, it’s a challenge for an audience to grasp in one hearing because of the language barrier. 

What’s worth knowing is that Lieberson scored the work for solo singer and orchestra as a love offering to his wife, mezzo soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who sang the premier performance shortly before her death. A few years later, the composer who set to music, “My love, if I die and you don’t, let’s not give grief an even greater field,” passed away himself. 

Knowing that makes all the difference.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 07:00
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