‘Dharma at Big Sur’ a mesmerizing experience in CSO’s all-American program

Christopher Rountree
Cincinnati Business Courier

Tracy Silverman lifted his six-string electric violin to his shoulder and played a low, mournful wail on his instrument. That began a mesmerizing, ecstatic journey in John Adams’ extraordinary raga for electric violin, "Dharma at Big Sur,” with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

Guest conductor Christopher Rountree’s all-American program opened with Adams’ early “The Chairman Dances” (Foxtrot for Orchestra) and concluded with “Dharma,” a work that Silverman premiered for the opening of Disney Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. In between were Copland’s Suite from the ballet “Billy the Kid” and Samuel Barber’s Essay No. 1.


Rountree was a fine partner, and the orchestra provided precise, exciting playing. In Music Hall’s new acoustic, the sound was exceedingly bright and clear, which often worked well in Adams’ post-minimalist style. However, the final climax to the ecstatic conclusion bordered on sensory overload.

Accompanying the work, Larsen designed a visual dreamscape using three actors, who danced and faded in and out of various scenes of the sea. Personally, I’d prefer to imagine the stunning cliffs of Big Sur without the visual aid.

To open the program, it was interesting to hear an example of Adams’ earlier style. “The Chairman Dances” of 1985, a witty montage of dances, was a kind of “warm-up” before writing his groundbreaking opera, “Nixon in China.” The bubbling minimalism was clear and vibrant, and the conductor kept a good balance in the pulsating textures. Adams’ colorful percussion section included piano, which eventually emerged as a terrific solo (Michael Chertock).

Rountree was an engaging leader in Copland’s wonderful score to his cowboy ballet, “Billy the Kid,” using big, balletic gestures and sometimes almost dancing along to the music. I would have liked more nuance and atmosphere in those wide-open prairie numbers. That said, one of the morning’s highlights was principal trumpet Robert Sullivan’s solo in “Prairie Night.”

Rountree’s finest moment came in Barber’s rarely played Essay No. 1, which opened the second half. Here, the listener could admire the rich color of the strings, the beautifully-executed brass choir and the deft playing by the winds. It deserves to be heard more often.
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