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Monday, December 5, 2005
My First American Fork Symphony Concert

Now we come to the concert review I started to write in my previous post, where I ended up waxing a tad pedantic on the place of live, amateur music in our culture and community.

This evening I attended my first American Fork Symphony concert. It's not the Utah Symphony or even the Utah Valley Symphony, but it's ours and it's here in town. (Also, my wife was their pianist last evening.) I confess that my expectations were quite low -- unjustly low, as it turned out. I actually enjoyed the evening.

Before I share some thoughts about last evening's concert specifically, I should say a word about how meager my own qualifications are to pass musical judgment. I am not the musician in the family. I played trumpet in junior high and high school and one semester of college. If I had kept it up these last 22 years, I might have been good enough to play in the American Fork Symphony once in a while, if they were desperate. I've sung in some good choirs, even directed some decent ones, but am not great at that, either. My chief musical virtue as a singer or conductor is that mostly (not entirely) I am able to stick to situations where I don't utterly embarrass myself.

Within those narrow bounds, I love to perform. When I was in school, there were plenty of opportunities. One high school December had 21 musical performances in 20 days, and I loved it. But I'm out of school, now, and sometimes I miss the music. I didn't keep up my instrument, but some others do. As I said in the previous post, it would be sad indeed if there were no place for amateur musicians (even mediocre ones like me) to perform.

Dr. Terry Hill conducted last night's concert; I essentially know him only from the program notes, but I can draw these conclusions from what I observed: He has a good, comfortable rapport with his orchestra; he is a good sport about working with amateur musicians; and he has a good sense of what his orchestra can do well and what will stretch them, but not catastrophically.

It was more of a pops concert than a symphony concert; that's not bad. It's no less respectable, no less challenging -- no less serious, really -- and more fun for much of the audience. For that matter, it's more of a pops orchestra than a full-fledged symphony orchestra. But they've been calling themselves the American Fork Symphony for years, so let's not monkey with tradition. It's a worthy aspiration.

The concert began with a Hugo Alfven Swedish Rhapsody which has been one of my favorite pieces of short orchestral music since I was a youth. It's difficult, and the orchestra couldn't quite pull it off at the usual tempo. Dr. Hill slowed it down a bit, so everyone could keep up, and the result was pleasant enough for the audience. If I were in the orchestra, it's the sort of difficult thing into which I would love to sink my musical teeth.

There followed a suite of Harry Potter music by John Williams, one of America's great composers. Just because it's new and familiar and you heard it in a movie doesn't mean it's not difficult. It's actually quite challenging, and this particular suite exposes one section of the orchestra at a time in a sink-or-swim way. Happily, there was more swimming than sinking. The principals in each section were fine, even if the sections weren't all solid from top to bottom (a difficult thing to achieve in an amateur community orchestra), and I think each section did some nice work along the way, despite some struggles. I particularly noted passages in which the bassoons, the cellos, the piano, the harp, and the flutes (who played medieval flutes we now call recorders) excelled. The contrabassoon was fun; you don't hear one of those every day. And more often than not, the whole ensemble's sound was satisfactory and musical. From my seat in the audience, it was mostly pleasant and interesting. And again, I think that if I were in the orchestra, this is another difficult work I'd love to take on, even if it fought back a little.

The rest of the program was more within the orchestra's comfort zone, and there were few struggles. The Tchaikovsky trepak (a lively Russian dance) was satisfactory and enjoyable. The Morton Gould setting of "Adeste Fidelis" was well-played and is a personal favorite. The Gould "Silent Night" illustrated that it is harder to play soft and slow than loud and fast, and may have been the third or fourth most difficult piece on the program, but even it went fairly well. Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride" was fun. (I performed that a few times in my own youthful, mediocre musical career, but never could do justice to the horse whinny at the end. Others, happily, do fine at that, including our local trumpeters.) A Robert Bowden Christmas medley was fun and well-executed.

Then came some more John Williams, a Christmas suite from the movie Home Alone. It was less difficult than the Harry Potter suite, but I'm guessing that it was still more difficult than the rest of the evening's Christmas music. In any case, it was the best performance of the evening. The orchestra played it beautifully and boldly, I thought.

Finally, some words about the audience, which included a lot of children and more than a few babies. This is a good thing. We teach them to behave here, then we can take them to the Utah Symphony or wherever when they're older. I know first-hand that some of the children, at least, left more interested in their own musical possibilities than they were when they arrived. But there's more.

The audience itself was the evening's big surprise. I have been to concerts and recitals in the community where the audience was rude and ill-behaved, even talking during the music. This uncultured incivility has tarnished my attitude about the arts in American Fork for years. I expected more of the same last evening, but I witnessed none of it. The audience was even sophisticated enough that no one applauded between movements of the same piece. (Even at BYU or Abravenel Hall or in New York you see that little gaffe sometimes. By the way, the American Fork audience that applauded once between movements as Serena McKinney performed Sarasate's Carmen Fantasy at a recent fund-raiser gets a pass on this one. That wasn't clueless; it was well-deserved and appropriate. The movement they, ahem, we were applauding was spectacular.)

The final piece on the program was "Hallelujah" from Handel's Messiah. Dr. Hill advised us (the audience) that we were the choir and also mentioned the tradition of standing when it is sung. So we stood, and at least some of us sang. In my trumpet years, I was always in the trumpet section, and so never got to sing this favorite chorus, so now I welcome any opportunity to the Hallelujah Chorus, even impromptu. My own performance was marred by a couple of coughs and about eight bars of memory lapse, but I had fun. (C'mon, folks, I hadn't sung it since at least Easter, and it was impromptu!)

Did I enjoy the evening? Yes, I already said that. Would I go back? Absolutely, even if my wife were not playing. Did the concert improve my opinion of the arts in American Fork? Unquestionably -- including my opinion of American Fork audiences .

Does the American Fork Symphony deserve a rehearsal venue to call its own? Yes, and I believe it's getting one up at the Recreation Center.

Does it merit its own large performance venue? No. In a world of limited resources, an orchestra which performs only several times each year, operating at public expense, can justify the cost of renting a good school auditorium for a few evenings, but not the cost of building a large auditorium of its own. (A sometime musician whose has been around a lot longer than I have notes that the Utah Symphony was on the national performance and recording scene long before it had its own venue.)

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