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Gershwin, Copland and Beethoven Combine Forces to Entertain

Bride and groom dance
in Appalachian Spring.

By Michael Buss, 2012-01-23
The parking lot told the story. It was almost full when I arrived 20 minutes early for the January 22nd Orange County Symphony concert. People were coming back!

Conductor David Rentz and the Board had worked hard to put together a crowd pleaser. Wan-Chin Chang, married to double bassist Chris Hornung, and somewhat hidden at the back of the stage, opened with three Gershwin preludes after which she was joined by a 12-piece chamber orchestra for Aaron Copland’s ever popular Appalachian Spring. The work originally conceived with dance choreographer Martha Graham was first performed with a chamber group. And what a delight. With this smaller than usual group you could truly identify the clarity of the instrumentation as each section took its moments in the sun. I was charmed by the violas!

Wan-Chin with her bassist husband Chris

David Rentz, becoming more relaxed at the microphone with this OC audience, first introduced the characters in the story: simple country people coming to a wedding, the young couple, a neighbor, the revivalist (who was actually somewhat flirtatious!), and his followers. Having been lucky enough to have seen the ballet version at South Coast Rep last year the music was especially evocative. Although the variations on the familiar “dance” Shaker theme are well known I was particularly entranced by the gently, well-disciplined slower parts where you could simply relax into the sheer luxury of the music. It seemed to linger before it moved on.

If you need a deeper, musicology analysis of the various pieces you should see the program notes. Mine is the analysis of the concert-goer who wishes that far more people would realize what joy it is to hear live orchestral music.

And so to the titanic genius of Beethoven. After the intermission Minji Noh, in a brilliant flamingo pink gown, swept on to the stage. Again, you may read her bio here. She has extensive plaudits as a brilliant pianist. Her first assignment of the evening was Beethoven’s Sonata No. 21 in C Major. I didn’t know the work, but it reminded me of the many hours spend listening to piano music. Perhaps there is no purer, more comprehensive instrument, than the piano. Not even the organ gets close to this. I trust you all have piano music in your music libraries and occasionally take time to let its liquid electricity wash over you. Minji Noh brought power, grace and scintillating dynamism to her performance.

In case you are confused by the terms, in the sonata the instrument is solo. In the concerto, as the name indicates, you have the full concert of orchestra with (in this case) the piano. With the stage suddenly transformed into a sea of chairs and music, followed by the musicians, we plunged into Beethoven’s Concerto No. 3 in C Minor.

Minji-Noh surrounded by well-wishers.

This is what you need to know about Beethoven. He is not hard to follow. Oh, sure, he can drum up a lot of noise with the full orchestra, but he always gives you musical themes you can identify and follow. The themes dance like butterflies from one section to another, sometimes translated into something moody and minor, and sometimes jubilant and light. Add in the piano element and the music takes off. From an orchestral introduction the piano suddenly bursts into life, as a gazelle gracefully leaping out of its cover to display its speed and beauty. And as the work progresses the piano and orchestra interweave in the dance.

This concerto contains several easy to follow themes. But I should mention that this was more than an auditory experience, it was a visually enthralling performance. The trick is to sit on the left side of the audience where you can see the pianist’s hands floating over the keys. Minji Noh keeps you riveted on her style. The speed and accuracy of the scales, the crystal clear flourishes, the perfectly satisfying harmonies had the kids in front of me irrepressibly playing air-piano! ( - they were 11 and 12 year olds.)

At the conclusion the audience was on its feet whooping and cheering, and the procession of bouquets seems not to end. No wonder that in the lobby afterwards Minji Noh was surrounded by enthusiastic family and friends.

Dr. Rentz did a great job. Speaking with three members of the orchestra afterwards I asked did they already know the work and how many rehearsals did they have? Answers: No; three. But they had “played stuff like this before.” It is a tribute to this very excellent orchestra that they can perform such great music to such rousing approbation. David Rentz, unassuming and understated, is the master on the podium.



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