Concert Review: DSSO’s Beethoven gives familiar works new ears

The common musical denominator for Saturday night’s “Revelations: Beethoven Project” concert by the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall was that of “program music,” intended to create an impression of the natural world.

Opening the evening at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center were Bela Bartok’s six Romanian Folk Dances, which helped to establish folk music as serious music.

Returning guest pianist Spencer Myer then joined the orchestra for Manuel de Falla’s nocturne for piano and orchestra “Nights in the Gardens of Spain.” Think of the orchestra as the lush vegetation in a trio of gardens and Myer’s piano as the exotic flowers that capture our mind’s eye.

This was one evening when I wished my seat was back on the other side of the hall so I could watch Myer’s hands as he played the unusual hand positions the piece required.

At one point, I would swear Myer was playing a xylophone with exotic Spanish flourishes. The piece offered some fascinating rhythms and a captivating section grounded in the bass clef.

After intermission, Myer took a seat in the back row, and conductor Dirk Meyer took to a podium to provide an engaging music appreciation lesson regarding the differences between absolute and program music, and to explain how Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony was related to the Bartok and de Falla pieces.

So as we listened to the development of the familiar opening theme of Beethoven’s 6th Symphony through the swirling strings and woodwinds, we focused on its abrupt changes as well as the impressions it created.

In the second movement, the cellos create the sound of the flowing water. You could give yourself over to imagining what we were “seeing” through the music. One theme was like a leaf floating on the water, another became a stag walking through the forest, while later an animal scurried through the underbrush.

Beethoven’s explicitness in giving each movement a title extended to his helpful notations denoting avian members of the competing cadenzas for flute (nightingale), oboe (quail) and clarinet (cuckoo).

The third movement’s merry gathering turns into spirited dancing, until thunder is heard in the distance, and the fourth movement’s sudden storm spoils the party, courtesy of not only the timpani that Beethoven brings into play for the first time, but a piccolo and trombones as well.

Beethoven’s storm creates wonderful harmonies between the musical equivalents of the rain, wind and lightning, setting up the sonic rainbow that breaks through to herald the final movement. A shepherd song gives thanks for the storm’s passing and grows until given full voice by the entire audience.

What I value most from the DSSO’s Beethoven Project is how each outing compels me to listen to familiar works with new ears and revise my estimation of each symphony. After Saturday night’s performance “Pastoral” moves up two spots on my Top 9 Beethoven Symphony list.

Saturday was also the release day for Bent Paddle’s Meyer-inspired DüsselDirk Altbier, some proceeds from which will go to the DSSO, allowing the conductor to say how pleased he was “we could support the arts by supporting our drinking habits.”

Unfortunately, I don’t review beer.

The DSSO is back on March 3 with “Roots,” consisting of Grieg’s Symphonic Dances, the DSSO Chorus singing Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, and the music from Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloé” ballet.