By John Falskow
Director of Instrumental Music
Tacoma Community College
The 2022-23 Symphony Tacoma season theme Compose Yourself included a roster of composers and soloists that celebrate the diversity of concert music. The theme “Compose Yourself” asks our community to gather ourselves, get ready, be prepared – but it also alludes to everyone in the community being represented in music, there exists music composed for you, and that you (any of us) are represented in concert music. Symphony Tacoma finished the 2022-23 season with a diverse and provoking program on Saturday, May 13 – themed Blues, Tangos and Rhapsodies. Saturday’s performance featured works by Florence Price, Claudio Constantini, and George Gershwin. The blending of genres, styles, and cultures was a celebration to conclude this concert season.
The concert opened with Florence Price’s dramatic Ethiopia’s Shadow in America. It is a programmatic work in three movements and tells the story of enslaved Africans as they eventually adapt into modern society. A testimony to the Harlem Renaissance, Ethiopia’s Shadow… has rich orchestration, full harmonies, and sweeping dynamics that captured the audience. Although often solemn, Price’s music balances anguish with majesty. It is a complicated and emotional piece and deserves more concert performances. Unfortunately, the music of Florence Price (and many black American composers) has often been overlooked. Times are changing in the classical music world, and Symphony Tacoma is a catalyst for diversity and representation in the arts.
Sarah Ioannides led the orchestra with craft, and Symphony Tacoma sounded fantastic in Price’s rich scoring. Ethiopia’s Shadow… had vibrant colors, exciting string tremolos, artful solos. The work showcased the entire orchestra. Solos by concertmaster Svend Rønning and principal cellist Alistair MacRae filled the Pantages Theater with singing musicianship and warm vibrato. The audience enthusiasm for Price’s music was obvious in the applause and cheers from the audience. It is wonderful to see how concert culture, artistic significance, and social justice can combine in a performance.
The centerpiece of Saturday’s concert was the Concerto for Bandoneon and Orchestra by Claudio Constantini. Constantini was also the soloist in the concerto. Likely not an everyday instrument for most Tacomans, the bandoneon is a push-button accordion. The bandoneonist raises a leg on a platform, balances the middle of the instrument on the raised thigh, and uses both arms to expand and contract the bellows. All of this, while the player uses his fingers to press buttons that produce pitches, melodies, and chords. The bandoneon is a wonderful sight and incredible sound! The expressiveness and volume control Constantini plays with the bandoneon are virtuosic. Although microphones were attached to the bandoneon to help with projection it retained a true intimate tone. His expertise and artistry held the audience captive.
Concerto for Bandoneon and Orchestra follows concert music tradition, having three movements that showcase the versatility of the bandoneon as a solo instrument. It is a substantial work of over thirty minutes and includes a wide array of musical styles and textures. Tango influences of Piazzolla are obvious, but there are also elements of jazz, blues, Latino folk dances, and angular modernism. The orchestration favored the soloist and gave plenty of space to hear the bandoneon clearly. An impressive first movement cadenza provided opportunities to hear the unique capabilities of the bandoneon clearly. As the cadenza concluded, the tempo increased, and seamlessly transitioned into the full orchestra. The slow second movement had a serene moment where the bandoneon played gentle arpeggios underneath the golden sounds of principal horn, Daniel Partridge. The quick third movement contrasted disjunct and flowing ideas, pointillistic scoring and lush resonant sounds. The cyclic structure recalled first movement ideas as the concerto came to an exciting conclusion. Constantini’s performance and composition brought the audience to an energetic ovation.
After intermission, Constantini returned as piano soloist for a concert favorite, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Rhapsody… obviously appealed to the audience, when some audience whoops and cheers followed Craig Rine’s famous opening clarinet scoops. The interplay between the piano solos and orchestra interludes were expertly timed under Ioannides’ leadership. The comfort of the jazz medium was obvious in Constantini’s playing. Although there were some minor bumps along the way, Gershwin’s audience pleaser earned an immediate standing ovation.
As an encore, Constantini played a piano work of his own, Specter Dance. It was a lilting waltz that combined chromatic harmonies and jazz influences. It was a nice, conclusion to Constantini’s successful night with Symphony Tacoma.
The concert concluded with another Gershwin standard, An American in Paris. This tone poem is filled with Gershwin’s tributes to French music tradition and American jazz. Symphony Tacoma musicians had many standout solos, including Paul Evans (tuba), Logan Esterling (English Horn), and Selina Greso (oboe). The orchestra played with palpable energy. Intense louds contrasted lush lyricism. Ioannides’ brilliant conducting led the orchestra through many technical passages.
It was a rewarding night for concert music in Tacoma – a virtuosic soloist, a tangible commitment to diversity and inclusion in the arts, and excellent playing by our Symphony Tacoma. We all wait in anticipation for the 2023-24 concert season!