A jazzy, spirited night with the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra
A review by Ruth L. Carver
The Denver Philharmonic Orchestra is settling into its role as the alternative orchestra in town – and a program on April 3 entitled “Reformations” confirmed why. In addition to its popular #dpotweets live Twitter feed, the DPO is consistently making daring programming choices and the one-night-only vibe of the concerts all but ensure a young, sell-out crowd. Under the baton of guest conductor Wes Kenney, on this night the orchestra deftly explored a potpurri of jazz, Baroque, contemporary, and early Romantic sounds.
The program was loosely built around the “reformation” theme, opening with Leopold Stokowski’s orchestral arrangement of J.S. Bach’s iconic Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Stokowski wonderfully reformed that piece’s harmonic and formal progression with the use of a huge brass section (quite the change from the original organ solo version). Here, Kenney effectively and powerfully led the huge forces on the small terraced stage area of the KPOF Hall, though the upper strings occasionally sounded raw rather than graceful.
The DPO was at its best in the following piece, Duke Ellington’s Three Black Kings, one of the last great efforts of the jazz legend’s life. On his deathbed, he worked with his son Mercer to outline the final details of the piece, and the resulting work displays his ease in big band orchestration and lushly sentimental melodies. It pays tribute to Balthazar (one of the three Magi), King Solomon, and finally Martin Luther King, Jr. Solo saxophonist Peter Sommer had a deliciously warm tone and tackled the lyrical melodies and more meandering solos with aplomb. Particularly in the third movement, the orchestra settled into an easy swinging groove, and Kenney led them to a celebratory climax. The piece has some moments of formal ambiguity, when one theme or rhythmic motive dissolves without really morphing into another clear theme. Yet it shows an Ellington willing to venture far beyond the constraints of a song, and it was a welcome, reformed version of jazz in the orchestra hall.
Sommer returned as soloist for John Williams’ suite “Escapades” from Catch Me if You Can, based on his 2002 film score. It is quickly becoming a regular on orchestra programs (last heard here at the Colorado Symphony Orchestra in 2013) when something unique and short is called for. The DPO was convincing and cool in the snapping, cutesy first movement, and perfectly captured a film noir mood in the murky, reflective second movement. Sommer’s mellow sound matched the comfortable, blithe leadership by Kenney. The piece is effective if you know the story of the film, but on its own is somewhat lackluster.
The program closed with Felix Mendelssohn’s monster Symphony No. 5 (1830), which gave him a great deal of trouble, was never performed in his lifetime, and was only published posthumously in 1868. The piece was conceived of as a paean to the Protestant Reformation in Germany, and quotes the hymn “A Might Fortress is Our God” as well as the sequence of notes known as the Dresden Amen, a classical motif used in church services throughout Germany and popular with composers as a shortcut reference to church music. This difficult piece revealed a few coordination issues among the sections of the orchestra, but showed moments of clarity and sophisticated blend. A richly colored cello section, a finely restrained piano dynamic in the third movement, and a simple, elegant wind chorale in the final movement all confirmed the quality of this orchestra – quality that needs to be one of the group’s defining traits, along with the adventurous, spirited vibe of its concerts. This reformed program offered up several unfamiliar works, and the relaxed atmosphere helped the audience feel at ease. That is no small feat in an era when classical music is not necessarily part and parcel of daily life – a reformation dearly needed indeed.