Tuesday, July 23, 2013


Blossom Music Center
July 21

An impressive Blossom debut for Laquita Mitchell. 

America, she is beautiful. And shamelessly so in the Sunday night program at Blossom, which lacked only fireworks to cap a celebration of native music ranging from traditional spirituals to a contemporary film score, spiced with tasty samplings of Porgy and Bess. Even with a Spanish concerto in the mix, it was an evening of lʼamour with Lady Liberty.

Opening pieces don’t get much bigger than John Williams’ Liberty Fanfare, written for the Statue of Liberty centenary celebration in 1986. That’s bigger as in expansive, with conductor James Feddeck striking a triumphant tone from the first blast of brass, then rolling out the rest of the fanfare in grand proportions. The only problem with starting out at maximum intensity is that there’s nowhere left to go, at least in terms of volume. But powerful internal dynamics gave the piece a satisfying sweep.

Three brief selections from Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln were enough to reaffirm Williams’ mastery of the soundtrack trade. Even separated from its subject matter, the music was heartwarming and unmistakably American in its optimism and vivacity. One could almost bask in the glow of grass-roots democracy, especially in the Coplandesque middle section, with its barn dance-style fiddle. A sentimental close with top strings swelling and low strings descending suggested deeper layers of meaning (and the tragedy to come), though drew only tepid applause.

A composer with flair.
Óscar Navarro’s Il Concerto was a pleasant surprise. The composer, who was present for the performance, does a lot of film scores, an influence evident in the many quick changes of mood, color and tempo in this one-movement work. He was lucky to have an outstanding soloist – Cleveland Orchestra principal clarinetist Franklin Cohen, who gave the lead instrument a strong, persuasive voice, segueing seamlessly from smoky, sinuous legato lines to fast-clipped runs. Feddeck took advantage of percussive elements like hand-clapping to give the orchestral backing an entertaining snap. A brisk, jazzy finish drew enthusiastic applause – less a reflection of the piece, perhaps, than a good showing by the Franklin Cohen fan club.

The second half opened with three spirituals arranged for a capella voices by the late Moses Hogan, an Oberlin College alum. Employing a lot of body English, Feddeck led the Blossom Festival Chorus through a crisp, energetic performance, adding colorful flourishes that only a high-caliber chorus can produce. The sound was magnificent. And it had absolutely no soul, which was hardly surprising. There is no way a 110-person, classically trained chorus is going to emulate a gospel choir. No matter how good the singing and conducting, they’re going to sound more like Beethoven than the Blind Boys of Alabama.

But the spirituals were a good warm-up for a generous selection of songs from Porgy and Bess. Gershwin’s music never fails to dazzle, especially with strong singers bringing it to life. Soprano Laquita Mitchell had star billing in the dual role of Carla and Bess, which allowed her to open with a tender “Summertime” and emote through favorites like “Promised Land” and “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.” Mitchell’s naturally high voice was beautifully rounded and impressively strong, at times rising over both the baritone and the orchestra. One wonders what she could do with Wagner.

A convincing Porgy.
Baritone Eric Greene has a swagger and tone commensurate with his large stature, and a voice with a wonderful, dark-hued timbre. His diction suffered a bit in spots, but otherwise his singing packed a punch, particularly as he ran away with “I Got Plenty o’ Nothin’.” Tenor Rodrick Dixon had only two brief moments in the spotlight but made the most of them, mugging his way through “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “There’s a Boat Leaving Soon.” The latter gave him a chance to stretch his voice to serious operatic heights.

Feddeck provided an extraordinarily lush background for the singers, at times almost too detailed for the setting. But he kept a lively momentum going and finished on a rambunctious roll that carried over to the encore, “America the Beautiful.” All that was missing were fireworks. But they would have been redundant in the tidal wave of sound roaring from the stage, providing a spectacular finish to a gloriously overwrought evening.

For more on Óscar Navarro: http://onavarro.com/

For more on Rodrick Dixon: http://www.tenorroddixon.com/

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