Review: Performance is Memphis Symphony Orchestra's feel-good event of season

Mei-Ann Chen
The Commercial Appeal

By Jon W. Sparks

The remarkable program of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra this weekend might be called the MSO’s feel-good event of the season.

The Masterworks lineup premiered a sweeping Michael Gandolfi work about Memphis, showed off a bubbly clarinet concerto by William Bolcom and ended with Brahms’ exuberant Symphony No. 2.

The elements of hope and joy were palpable in all three works, but the most intriguing and profound was Gandolfi’s “Fourth Chickasaw Variations.” The title refers to the bluff so named by early river explorers that would eventually become Memphis.

The composer drew from the spiritual “I’ve Been ’Buked and I’ve Been Scorned” to fashion the 11 variations that contemplate the place’s momentous events and eras.

The work begins with low and quiet tones foreshadowing the developments to come with the Americanization of the area. There is hope as well as dread as the unsullied site faces inevitable change.

The composition, which continues without pause, highlights the earthquakes of 1811-12, the turbulent first years of the municipality, the Civil War, the Sultana disaster, the renaissance at the end of the 19th Century, the increasingly global reach of industry and entrepreneurship into the 20th Century, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Mountaintop” speech on April 3, 1968, the region’s musical heritage, and the challenges of the future.

“Fourth Chickasaw Variations” was commissioned by longtime symphony advocates Paul and Linnea Bert in honor of the MSO’s 60th year.

Gandolfi immersed himself in the region’s history and the result is a moving tribute to the soul of the city.

Musically, it is simply a terrific work, thoughtful and suffused with rich themes and emotions. It’s indisputably American, with epic moments that suggest Copland, soulful passages of praise, heartbreaking songs of mourning and tributes to the jazz, blues and soul that have done much to define the city. And even as it is specifically about Memphis, it also reflects a nation’s relentless movement to whatever the future holds.

It’s rare for an opening piece to get a standing ovation, but the audience at the Cannon Center Downtown Saturday night welcomed “Fourth Chickasaw Variations” warmly with cheers for the orchestra, the composer and maestro Mei-Ann Chen.

Following that was a virtuoso performance by Anthony McGill doing Bolcom’s Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra. The piece itself is a mixed bag, from deliriously inventive passages to Hollywood cliché. But McGill masterfully performed with skill as well as an infectious passion that made the piece a pleasure to experience.

The final piece of the evening was the Brahms, a big teddy bear of a symphony, robustly performed, that sent the audience home fully satisfied.

An encore performance was scheduled Sunday at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre.