Review: Beethoven, Schwantner, Elgar

The following is reprinted from the Tallahassee Democrat (14 February 2005), with permission.

The Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra continued its 2004-2005 Masterworks season with a program of music by Ludwig van Beethoven, Joseph Schwantner, and Edward Elgar Saturday evening (12 February) at Florida State University’s Ruby Diamond Auditorium.

TSO Music Director David Hoose led the Orchestra in a strong performance of Beethoven’s "Pastorale" Symphony (No. 6 in F, Op. 68, 1808) to open the concert. The Sixth is a generally more relaxed piece than most of the composer’s other symphonies, as is indicated by the subtitle. This more "relaxed" nature is reflected in the form—there are five movements instead of the usual four, for example.

The Orchestra’s principal woodwinds (flutist Eve Amsler, oboist Eric Ohlsson, clarinetist Frank Kowalsky, and bassoonist Jeff Keesecker) and principal horn player David Cripps played their many prominent solos with skill and style. The Orchestra’s string sections were in fine form throughout the evening, playing with a warm and at times luxurious sound, and a strong sense of ensemble. Mr. Hoose was in fine form as well, shaping phrases with a light hand that allowed the players room for expression.

The best concertos provide a showcase for a virtuoso performer through a substantive musical argument. The worst ones provide neither. Schwantner’s Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra (1994) falls somewhere in between these two extremes.

Two of the biggest trends in mainstream American composition in the past twenty-five years are minimalism (wherein pieces are made from the repetition of clearly etched musical lines; cf. Philip Glass) and eclecticism (wherein pieces are made by drawing from a variety of musical styles and, in the most successful examples, integrated by the personality of the composer; cf. Leonard Bernstein). Schwantner partakes of both of these approaches and combines them in a way that leaves the listener with nothing to chew on. The patterns that are repeated (ala minimalism) don’t move against each other in the telling way they do in the best examples of the style. His eclecticism is twice removed: that is, he borrows from borrowers, so that any personality disappears.

On the other hand, the writing for the percussion solo is spectacular, and FSU professor John Parks was more than up to the task. He played a large array of pitched and unpitched instruments with flair and virtuosity. Schwantner’s writing for the unpitched instruments (drums, etc.) was far better than for the mallets and Mr. Parks brought out everything there was in the part, and more. In addition to his extraordinary playing he has a commanding stage presence that won over the audience as well as the Orchestra. He deserved the raucous and prolonged ovation he received from the large audience.

The concert closed with a sprightly reading of Elgar’s quirky and jovial Cockaigne (In London Town) Overture (Op. 40, 1901). Mr. Hoose and the Orchestra emphasized the modern urbanity of this short work, with its dense counterpoint and wealth of melodic materials.


  1. Maybe I'm a bit biased, but I really like the Schwantner. If he does indeed "borrow from borrowers", I still can't think of another piece that sounds anything like this one....

    Nicely written review!

  2. Thanks, Marcus. I'm really glad they played the Schwantner, though I obviously didn't think much of it as music. As a showpiece, it's excellent, and John Parks is a phenomenal player. He's playing it with a couple other orchestras this season, too.