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ASO, guests serve up Masterworks program not soon to be forgotten

By Michael Huebner,
May 3, 2014
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BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – As the search for Alabama Symphony's new music director wears on, the procession of guest conductors at Masterworks concerts is becoming a bit of a blur. One, at least, stands out.

Courtney Lewis made a strong impression in January, 2013, in a concert of Ravel, Haydn and Walton. He did so again Friday in music by Stravinsky, Saint-Saëns, Beethoven and a premiere by ASO composer-in-residence Hannah Lash.

The music director of the Boston-based Discovery Ensemble and recently appointed guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Lewis is a versatile musician who is just as comfortable with Beethoven as he is with 21st century music. He chose Stravinsky's “Danse Concertantes” for his first challenge, tackling its thorny rhythms and meter changes with sweeping gestures and crisp visual cues.

The orchestra (pared to 15 strings) was tentative at first. This is a difficult work, not only rhythmically, but for its tonal abstraction (think Picasso's cubist paintings set to music). Ever the adaptable ensemble, ASO had sharpened its focus by the variations movement, bringing the work to a satisfying close.

Lewis also proved to be a superb liaison in Saint-Saëns' Piano Concerto No. 2. In one of the finest concerto performance to be heard at these concerts all season, British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor delivered a powerful, finely crafted reading, at times fanciful, at other times introspective and lyrical.

The swift second movement came across with crystalline lightness, the finale with brilliance, especially in the flurries of scale and powerful chords and octaves. That kind of musicianship, rare for someone who is two months shy of his 22nd birthday, is infectious. Lewis picked up on every nuance, lucidly conveying the pianist's ideas to the orchestra.

Lash was on hand to hear the premiere of her “Nymphs,” an ASO commission. An 18-minute, three-movement work inspired by species of moths and butterflies, it draws listeners immediately into Lash's sound world, a trumpet and violin soloing above an effervescent texture of harp, celesta, and light pitched percussion.

Lash has a keen sense for orchestration, which came across with suggestions of random flight and peaceful outdoor settings, beautifully woven into string and brass sectional passages. More than once, the work brought to mind the vaporous ambiance and fluid tonality of the Impressionists. Take Debussy (“Nocturnes,” “Images” come to mind), advance one century and superimpose Lash's postmodern language and unique gift for color combinations. Of the many excellence ASO commissions in recent years, this is likely to have the most staying power.

Lewis ended with a vibrant, churning reading of Beethoven's Symphony No. 8. A work well known to ASO, especially during the Justin Brown years, this reading abandoned all other interpretations and started from scratch. Conducting from memory, Lewis coaxed a compact, bright sound at brisk tempos, ideal for ASO's 50-plus players. The orchestra responded to Lewis' demonstrative gestures with boldness and precision.

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