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Austin Symphony Orchestra’s Variation Voyage

Robert Faires – The Chronicle

January 18, 2019

ASO’s first concert of 2019 had us hearing all sorts of feels, but Leon Fleisher’s piano also got us thinking

Music may not be a place where you think of thinking. Isn’t that the realm ruled by mood, by feeling? The Austin Symphony Orchestra’s first concert of 2019 surely seemed constructed to reinforce that notion. Music Director Peter Bay built the program around works that played with variations: Charles Ives embellishing the tune for Variations on “America” in a host of ways; Benjamin Britten noodling with an old Henry Purcell theme to create The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra; and Antonín Dvorák spinning the melody for his song “Huslar” in 27 different directions for his Symphonic Variations. In all of those works, the variations sounded driven by feeling – sudden shifts in emotion, or else diverse, vivid personalities taking turns at the same material. They were by turns bombastic and balletic, tender and tempestuous, merry and martial. What might strike you as emotionally unstable in a human was ingeniously playful in a symphonic piece, and throughout this Variation Voyage (as the concert was titled), part of the delight came from wondering what our next emotional port of call would be and how it would differ from the one we had just left.

Though the array of feelings and personalities were often a pleasure in themselves, sometimes they also added up to something larger. It was fun hearing Ives alternately celebrate and subvert the patriotic piety we associate with “My country, ‘tis of thee,” gussying it up with orchestral frills like a royal dandy or having it tooted out by lonely, muted horns. But then, once we were drawn from a bouncy rendition led by the winds to a version prominent with clacking castanets to a brass-heavy take that could have almost been done by an oompah band, it felt as if we were hearing the tune interpreted by different groups of émigrés to this “sweet land of liberty,” as if we were in the midst of the melting pot that “America” seeks to honor.

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