River's voice resounds in 'Mississippi'

Philadelphia Orchestra's Carol Jantsch was a soulful soloist with gentle vibrato.
Philadelphia Orchestra's Carol Jantsch was a soulful soloist with gentle vibrato.
Posted: March 26, 2013

If you're going to write a concerto inspired by the majesty of the Mississippi River, one appropriate voice would have to be the deep, otherworldly tuba - so often heard in everyday orchestral life but rarely in solos. Or did the tuba idea come first and the river second?

Whatever the motivation, Michael Daugherty's Reflections on the Mississippi was a charmer at its world premiere by Philadelphia Orchestra's Carol Jantsch and the Temple University Symphony Orchestra on Sunday, in the ensemble's annual Kimmel Center concert.

Nostalgia and rustic Americana are not what one expects from Daugherty, who made his name on works that mined pop-culture superheros for serious American archetypes. The Mississippi layers are impressionistic. Movements have titles - "Mist," "Steamboat" - though they weren't needed given how the music made you feel the river's humidity.

In this predominantly lyrical concerto, one expansive melody follows another with a kind of dreaminess that recalls Charles Ives' Central Park in the Dark. That languid tone gave way in the second movement to complicated, propulsive rhythms ( Mission Impossible music) that delivered more traditional concerto excitement with a syncopated animation suggesting the tuba's possibilities as a jazz instrument.

Moments of big-orchestra lushness recalled the Hollywood films that have added to the romance of the river. Incursions from foreign keys were welcome but felt like red herrings. You wanted more or none.

No matter how distracting her sequined gown, Jantsch was a soulful soloist with gentle vibrato, supported by a technically assured orchestra under Luis Biava. The piece should be repeated soon.

Shostakovich's Symphony No. 9 was led in a typically unfussy fashion by longtime faculty member Biava - who was honored at the concert for his years of service - and showed what a high standard the Temple orchestra consistently achieves. You could easily imagine it as professional, especially after Wen Hsieh's poetic bassoon solo.

The symphony itself puzzled audiences at its 1945 premiere and still does: Terse and lacking gravity, it was a curious choice by Biava on this important occasion.

Samuel Barber's Prayers of Kierkegaard, led by Paul Rardin, showed off the Temple University Combined Choirs' imposing sound and amazingly clear diction.


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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