Detroit Free Press Staff Writer
4:15 p.m. EDT April 1, 2016
Link to article here
There were two impressive debuts at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s Thursday night concert at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield. Both were by young musicians from within the DSO family. Principal bassist Kevin Brown played his first concerto with the ensemble, and assistant conductor Michelle Merrill led her first classical subscription concert — though, technically, Thursday was a Neighborhood Series concert and Saturday’s appearance at Orchestra Hall will be the true subscription debut.
Calendar details aside, what’s important is that Merrill, 32, conducted a meaty program that revealed her lively podium presence, confident direction and substantive musical ideas. Her skills were best on display in the program’s anchor, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, the composer’s “Pastoral,” a paean to nature. Favoring brisk tempos and a limber rhythmic snap, she offered a vision of the work that was less a leisurely stroll through the countryside than a speedy convertible ride with the top down. There were times, including some particularly breathless passages in the third movement allegro (“merry assembly of country folk”), where the phrasing was too driven and the ensemble began to fray. Merrill seemed to be going for a taut kind of lyricism, which is not easy to capture. But Beethoven’s score sounded fresh, the dynamics were thoughtful and a warm and glowing sound emerged despite the challenging acoustics of the synagogue.
The eclectic program wasn’t particularly unified, despite Merrill’s attempt in engaging spoken remarks to propose a theme of Nature (Beethoven), Life (Dvorak’s “Carnival Overture”) and Love (Walter Piston’s “Suite from the Incredible Flutist”). Still, it was a pleasant mix. The opening Dvorak overture sounded a little too hyper, but Merrill found a more relaxed footing in Piston’s episodic ballet suite. The music includes some winsome tone painting evoking a sleepy village, a lively outdoor market and a raucous circus march — the latter featuring orchestra members boisterously carousing and waving flags and one literally barking to imitate a dog. The dance movements, from a grand waltz to a snappy polka, had style, and flutist Sharron Sparrow’s alluring solo lines gave voice to the title character.
The Czech-born composer Johann Baptist Vanhal (1739-1813), who settled in Vienna, isn’t well known among audiences today, but he’s an interesting historical figure for being one of the first composers to make a living outside of the court patron system or the church. He did this by writing tons of music and cultivating relationships with publishers to serve an increasing number of at-home amateur musicians with chamber music. The shadow of Papa Haydn hovers in his D Major Bass Concerto, which is scored for two oboes, two trumpets and strings. Brown, 29, who joined the DSO in 2014, is a graceful and expressive player. He brought a virtuoso flair, impeccable intonation and musical shape to the rapid, double-time passage work. His singing sound added emotional weight to the slow movement. I’m not sure I necessarily want to hear the Vanhal concerto again, but I certainly want to hear Brown in more solo roles.
Contact Mark Stryker: 313-222-6459 or email@example.com
Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Three out of four stars
Thursday, Congregation Shaarey Zedek
Program repeats tonight at 8 p.m., Macomb Center for the Performing Arts, 44575 Garfield, Clinton Township
8 p.m. Sat., Orchestra Hall, Max M. and Marjorie S. Music Center, 3711 Woodward Ave., Detroit.
Fri.: $25, adult; $10, student.