February 20, 2008

501st in the News

Another thing that I'll post up is news that I can find, usually after events and things like that. Here's the first:

The Peoria Symphony Orchestra strikes back
'Star Wars' Suite closes rousing rendition of pops, Western-themed pieces
Monday, February 18, 2008

PEORIA - Move over Boston Pops.

The Peoria Symphony Orchestra might provide a little competition for you.
Saturday's symphony concert would have done Arthur Fiedler, the late, great pops conductor, proud. Not only was there an ample serving of the music of John Williams - from "Star Wars" and "E.T." as well as the soundtrack from "The Cowboys" starring John Wayne - but there was a little bit of spectacle and staging as well.
The concert's closing moment, for instance, was picture perfect: Well-armed Imperial Storm Troopers in white; Darth Vader in black, helmet glinting in the stage light; a fleet of young people from Prof. John Jost's Bradley Chorale singing strange words in Sanskrit - all slowly rising out of the Civic Center orchestra pit as the symphony played on, upping the tension in the already tense final section from Williams' "Star Wars" Suite.

The cinematically-correct re-enactors came compliments of the 501st Legion of Imperial Stormtroopers, Midwest Garrison, who also were in the lobby before the show and during intermission - standing guard, wielding light sabers, posing for pictures with "Star Wars" fans and in general providing the obligatory intergalactic atmosphere.

And why not? Music went with the movies long before words did (where would silent films be without keyboard accompaniment?) making this medium as musical as it is visual. So the Peoria Symphony's pops-style celebration of movie music was quite on target: If movie music doesn't belong in the symphony hall, then selections from opera and ballet don't either.
As usual, music director David Commanday - who also provided a witty and brief commentary before each piece - made some intelligent selections. By placing Aaron Copland's richly textured and imaginatively orchestrated "Red Pony" right after Williams' "The Cowboys" Overture, Commanday demonstrated how much Williams owes to Copland, and yet how original Williams sounds in his own right. Likewise, another crowd-pleasing piece on the program - Gustav Holst's "Mars, the Bringer of War," from "The Planets" - no doubt influenced Williams as he composed for "Star Wars."
By now, it's obvious that there's a healthy bit of Hollywood in Commanday, who couldn't resist wearing cowboy boots during the concert's first half in honor of Williams and Copland's Western-themed music. Commanday has a sense of drama and an ear for making the most of colorful orchestrations and fine shadings of dynamics, and by now he has this orchestra well-trained. That deep orchestral growl that opens Richard Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra" (the "2001" theme) was positively mysterious; the subtle swelling and ebbing of volume gave the music a raw power. The Holst, meanwhile, was delivered with theatrical menace. You could almost hear the tanks rolling in (and the piece was written before tanks were invented).
Although the "Star Wars" Suite, which closed the program, predictably won a standing ovation, I thought the really masterful performance took place during the concert's first half with "The Red Pony." The orchestra was absolutely first rate as it plumbed this wonderful film score, which is by turns colorful, rhythmic, energetic, lyric, funny and always profoundly human, much like the John Steinbeck story that the movie is based on. Copland's music has a way of taking you to the heart of things, and the orchestra deserves credit for letting us rest there a while.


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