Published on December 13th, 2023

Review: Erik Poehlman


What is American music? It is hard to truly say that a particular musical factor is what constitutes American music, our backgrounds and traditions are so diverse and history so short. We have developed as a nation in a time when communication technologies have improved rapidly, and as our culture developed it has been heavily influenced by world cultures much older than we are. Even so, there exists music that feels distinctly American. Why is this, what is it that feels this way?

On Saturday evening Symphony Tacoma, led by conductor Sarah Ioannides, gave a dazzling performance of their Classics II concert, titled American Fusion. “American” is perhaps the best and only way to describe the concert which consisted of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide Overture, the recently composed Violin Concerto by Wynton Marsalis, and culminated in Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3. For the Violin Concerto Symphony Tacoma was joined by Kelly Hall-Tompkins as the solo violinist. The night was filled with varied themes infused with the feeling of Americana; the thrill and action of Bernstein, the harmony of roots and discovery in Marsalis, and the open and hopeful spaces of Copland.

The evening began with the heroic humor of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide Overture, which for all its fun is a deceptively difficult work that can easily descend into sluggish murk due to its demand for alacrity and precision. Symphony Tacoma propelled the energy forward, displaying grand vistas and subtle tableaus, dexterous winds and powerhouse brass and sweeping strings, unrelenting in momentum. Voltaire’s adventure is recalled in unstoppable movement as the overture came to its explosive conclusion, creating all the space needed for the arrival of Marsalis’ Violin Concerto.

The featured soloist for the evening was the violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins, whose take on the Concerto was full of character, humor, brazenness and sentimentality. She was an incredible communicator, expressing musical lines with an honesty and clarity that couldn’t help but be responded to in both the audience and the orchestra, an essential component in a work like the Violin Concerto with its musical conversation between sections, lines and colors. Kelly and Symphony Tacoma navigated this complex interplay while making it look natural and feel spontaneous, an impressive and difficult feat! The result was a performance of genuine personality that invites all to the conversation and to experience the joys of that conversation together. The Violin Concerto itself had a peculiar feeling of anticipation to it all. The jazz influence is very clear throughout the work, both in the raucous parties of clapping and stomping and in the poignant wandering of the fiddler and orchestral voices in the work’s quieter moments. The first movement “Rhapsody” saw hints of what was to come, as the soloist states the theme with the orchestra dipping in and out, testing the waters, creating contrasts and demonstrating the nature of the work as a dialogue. The second movement “Rondo Burlesque” kicked off the party, realizing fully what the first movement began. The solo violin’s virtuosity was given ample opportunity to strut its stuff as the work moves between sections of near free time and more strict directionality. Of particular note was a very difficult duet between the soloist and percussionist performed across the stage from one another, also very exciting and impressive to see! The third movement “Blues” seemed to realize a movement of melody and color in an unveiling of what the previous movements have been building towards, revealing a sentimental core to the energy and joy in Marsalis’ work. Finally, the fourth movement “Hootenanny” began with a return to the party feel, with almost Coplandian themes and orchestration which created spectacular open spaces for the soloist and other voices to play in. This culminated in a fascinating way as the party disappears into the distance, leaving the fiddler as the last voice we hear, playing ad infinitum until they are too far to be heard anymore.

After an intermission, the evening concluded with Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3, which seemed to continue some question posed in the first half of the concert. Both Bernstein and Marsalis had demonstrated Copland’s influence, and closing such a concert with his third symphony enhances a sense of arrival and grand Americana that feels uniquely Copland. A symphony of shifting lights and shadows, we were invited to get lost in the open spaces created by Symphony Tacoma only to be met with a purposeful direction that forms the central line of the work. Copland composed this work following the end of the second World War, and it still maintains a sense of the euphoria that Americans had at the time as well as a sense of looking forward to a still-uncertain future.

This is perhaps why this work gives such a sense of completion and returning home after the first half of the concert. The tale of Candide could be seen as one of searching, a thrilling adventure as Candide tries to find his way in a world full of twists and surprises both good and bad. Marsalis’ Violin Concerto also has a sense of waiting, as if structured in a way that leads performer and listener together to the end of a phrase or section and then seems to pause, suspended together for a moment before moving on. There is a thrilling joy to all this music, but also an anticipation and desire for what is to come. Maybe what made this program feel so American is a certain spirit of inquiry that permeates the compositions and the performers on the stage. There is a desire and necessity for all to come together, to let go of suspicion and hostility, to dissolve borders, barriers, and distrust. There is a desire to relinquish fear and replace it with hope. Artists will always express what lurks in the public conscience of their time, and what could be more American than the desire for change, the desire for a better world, the desire for leadership, and the anticipation as we wait for who will take that next step. I left Saturday’s concert with a single question: What are we waiting for?


Symphony Tacoma’s next concert is Classics III: Remembrance – February 24th, 2024, 7:30PM at Pantages Theater. This concert features the amazing Verdi’s Requiem.