Down the road on Thursday, the troops may have been gathering in the heat for a reenactment of the Battle of Bull Run — or, if you’re from the South, “The First Battle of Manassas” — but in the cool dimness of the Hylton Performing Arts Center, the 150th anniversary of that bloody battle was commemorated with the musical equivalent of fireworks.
It was the last of three concerts that conductor Lorin Maazel and the young students of his Castleton Festival Orchestra performed at Hylton this summer. This one, pictorially conceived and featuring all American works, was a doozy — two hours of splashing color ricocheting off the walls. And there was the added attraction of mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, on hand to lead off with the national anthem (she can actually sing it) and, later, to perform a set of Stephen Foster songs.
Maazel chose a program that had nothing to do with the Civil War but everything to do with what we have come to think of as an “American sound.” As he usually does at his Castleton concerts, he conducted the opening and closing pieces — in this case “On the Trail” from Grofe’s “Grand Canyon Suite” and Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” — and gave over the baton to his conducting associates for the rest.
Blake Richardson led a cerebral performance of Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” that was neatly crafted but sounded a little premeditated. Joshua Weilerstein, on the other hand, danced his way through a reading of the “Symphonic Dances” from Bernstein’s “West Side Story” that was raw, threatening and exhilarating at the same time. It would be interesting to see and hear what he would do with something less dramatically evocative.
Graves was a wonderful presence onstage, but with that creamy voice produced so far back in her throat, the Foster songs sounded dark — the words muddied and without discernible consonants. The orchestra was alert, powerful and, for the most part, precise, and the concertmaster, saddled with a bunch of solos, did a terrific job.
Reinthaler is a freelance writer.