Cinematic Night of Nature Music, With a Few Valleys

Monday, February 20, 2006

Non-film music by a famed cinema composer as well as movielike melodies highlighted the Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic's concert Saturday night at Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria.

John Williams's "The Five Sacred Trees: Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra" has nothing in common with the composer's music for "Jaws" and "Star Wars" except skillful orchestration.

This serious work portrays five trees of Celtic myth. Bassoonist Arnold Irchai needed all of his considerable technique to keep his instrument bubbling along with the violin harmonics and timpani, playing against strong orchestral writing or with the Irish bodhran and rhapsodizing in lengthy meditative solos.

Conductor Ulysses S. James's accompaniment was pliable and understanding.

Ferde Grofe's "Grand Canyon Suite" provided lighter fare. Its "On the Trail" movement often appears in pop concerts and cartoons. The portrayal of a shambling, then speeding donkey ride remains amusing, if well-worn.

But the suite's other movements are trite, like music for a B-movie.

Even when well played, "Sunset" sounds like warmed-over Tchaikovsky. "Cloudburst" only shows how much better Beethoven did this sort of thing 125 years earlier, in his "Pastoral" Symphony.

The symphony in this concert was No. 2, Op. 132 ("Mysterious Mountain") by Alan Hovhaness. It could have used a bit more rehearsal. Some sections were highly effective, but others were marred by imprecision and inelegant balance. The Double Fugue was excellent, but the finale offered only hints of a grandeur to which it never quite rose.

In all, though, this concert of American music provided a pleasant journey from mountains to canyons.

-- Mark J. Estren


© 2006 The Washington Post Company