|Poulenc:||Organ Concerto in G Minor|
|John Harmon:||Cry of the Owl|
Clara Cox Fountain, organ
ellsworth snyder, conductor
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the summer music series at the First Unitarian Society. The second of six Friday evening concerts this year featured organist Clara Cox Fountain and a chamber orchestra performing the Concerto in G Minor by Francis Poulenc and the first performance of a new piece for chorus and orchestra by the Wisconsin composer John Harmon. ellsworth snyder, the Unitarian Society's music director, conducted.
All the programs in this summer's series are fairly ambitious, and in both works offered Friday evening there was an element of overreaching the capabilities of the performers on hand. This raises the question of which critical yardstick one might apply to such a concert. By professional standards, despite the presence of several professionals in the orchestra, much of the playing was not up to snuff. The Poulenc organ concerto is a really wonderful work, but it is far from easy, both in the solo part and in maintaining good ensemble with (and within) the orchestra, and there were some fairly prominent slips in both departments. By more relaxed standards, there's no doubt whatever of the good intent and serious purpose of all concerned, nor of the enthusiasm with which a capacity audience received the effort. A further positive aspect is that over the two decades there has been a steady climb in both the quality and the programming of this series. This rising arch is surely the result of snyder's devotion to fine music and his consistently hard work in promoting and performing in the Unitarian Society concerts.
The Harmon piece is called Cry of the Owl. Loosely based on a speech given in 1854 by Chief Seattle, the text of the 35-minute work evinces an animistic, reverential respect for all things natural, espousing commonly known Native American spiritual values. The key phrase is, "We are but a strand in the web of creation. What we do to the web, we do to ourselves." The ultimate point of the piece is to lament the passing of this ethos, symbolized by the voice of the dying owl.
Even if Harmon had received a first-rate performance, there would remain some serious questions about the work musically. The text is basically a string of aphorisms, presenting a single climax around the idea of the demise of these natural values. But the music itself does not embody this drama. Instead, it is episodic and quite repetitious in its linear and chordal effects. On the positive side, it is very well orchestrated. But there isn't really enough fresh musical material to sustain such a long work, and much of it is rather obvious in a new- age sort of way. If Harmon were to reduce the work to half or maybe even a third of its present dimensions, I think he would have a far more concentrated, credible, and successful piece. This contraction would also reduce the text to its essentials, and that in turn would underscore the high purpose to which Harmon's piece is so clearly, even passionately, committed.
This Friday, Baroque flutist Thomas Boehm will play a Mozart flute concerto under the baton of Snyder, then snyder will be the soloist in Mozart's Piano Concerto in B-flat major, K. 595, with Roland Johnson conducting.
Isthmus, June, 1994
Copyright 1994 Jess Anderson