Zachary Lewis | Guest Reviewer
Between the CSO itself, guest conductor-pianist Stuart Malina, the large crowd, and the 50-plus amateur musicians from the community who accepted the invitation to share the stage, the event was more about music’s power to bring people together than any particular genre or branch of the repertoire.
Malina, the longtime music director of Pennsylvania’s Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra and a pivotal force behind Broadway’s “Movin’ Out,” presided over a charming, diverse program drawing primarily on American tradition but also featuring an entry or two from the European canon.
Alongside George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” with Malina at the piano, and selections by Aaron Copland, Howard Hanson, and Leonard Bernstein stood an exceedingly well-known scene from a Giuseppe Verdi opera and a balletic bonbon by Franz von Suppe. The large-ensemble efforts received solid performances, and the offerings by the CSO and Malina reflected both careful work and in-the-moment spontaneity.
Besides collaboration, the evening also was about having fun — hence the possible “pops” label. The music itself made for easy listening, and Malina made for an entertaining host, weaving jokes and timely observations into musical commentary and even going so far as to move his own piano into place.
Finest proof of what collaboration can achieve artistically came in the form of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” — one of Malina’s trademark showpieces — as the CSO both accompanied Malina the pianist and followed Malina the conductor in an act of mutual trust.
The results were terrific. Shedding musical constraints left and right, the orchestra fell wholeheartedly into character, relishing the score’s jazzy licks and boisterous energy. Malina, meanwhile, turned in a sparkling, virtuoso performance notable for its elasticity; it had drive where it counted and luxurious space where Gershwin waxes ruminative.
Bernstein’s “Candide” Overture opened the program in a brilliant manner. Malina dove right in with a brisk, seemingly unsustainable tempo, and the orchestra not only held up but also enunciated the score’s bountiful melodies with pizzazz.
Still, the most touching instances of collaboration took place during the concert’s second half, when audience members sang along with two selections and community members young and not-so-young joined the CSO in a grand show of camaraderie. The whole evening culminated with a rousing sing-along of “America the Beautiful,” whose message, Malina said, may be more poignant than ever in this period of economic uncertainty.
Best served by the expanded forces was the second movement from the “Romantic” second symphony of Howard Hanson, a committed presenter of American music, longtime Chautauquan and namesake of a local street. Featured was the symphony’s Adagio, whose sumptuous melodies could have used greater lyrical definition but certainly lacked for nothing in terms of richness.
The “Hoedown” from Copland’s “Rodeo” also fared well in the larger group’s hands. Only definition wasn’t an issue. The performance had punch and expert pacing, and the short excerpt succeeded in making an even bigger impact than usual.
On the European front, just two ultra-famous selections sufficed: “Va, Pensiero” from Verdi’s opera Nabucco and the “Light Cavalry” Overture by Suppe. Trained vocalists led the audience in a stirring, surprisingly effective sing-along of the former, while the Suppe came across with all possible liveliness and dynamism.
All too often in classical music, stuffiness and elitism prevail, spoiling the art form. Well, here was an antidote to both ills. Sometimes, as Malina and the CSO proved beyond a doubt, the answer is simply to open the door and extend a hand.
Lewis is a classical music critic for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.