The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra opened its digital season with a program that music director Louis Langrée described as “quintessentially American”. Indeed, it featured two of the most familiar pieces from the mid-century repertoire, as well as a contemporary composition that riffed on a longstanding orchestral tradition. The hour-long evening, available free to viewers throughout the world, celebrated not just America itself but the skill of one of the country’s finest orchestras.

Louis Langrée, the Catalyst Quartet and the CSO © Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra
Louis Langrée, the Catalyst Quartet and the CSO
© Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra

Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 has been performed by some of the biggest names in classical music history, each bringing their own unique sound and perspective to the composer’s setting of poet James Agee’s elegiac recollections of his youthful halcyon days. Angel Blue sang here with limpid tone, particularly in the middle and low registers, and her largely vibrato-free interpretation suggested pure childhood innocence. This was Blue’s first crack at the piece — her scheduled debut, at Tanglewood this past summer, was canceled due to the pandemic — and it lacked the necessary sense of an adult looking back, both mournfully and gratefully, on a time that no longer exists. No doubt her reading will strengthen with future performances. The reduced orchestral forces shone under Langrée’s direction, with particularly lovely playing from principal flute Randolph Bowman, principal English horn Christopher Philpotts and principal French horn Elizabeth Freimuth.

Angel Blue © Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra
Angel Blue
© Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra

Aaron Copland’s chamber reduction of his Appalachian Spring ballet score, requiring only thirteen musicians, proved a smart choice for a time when gatherings must be kept small. Langrée wove together the work’s narrative with clarity and precision, suggesting the hopefulness, wonder and terror of a young woman on her wedding day. Copland’s music celebrates the vibrant and varied character of American music, and the orchestra members drew out flavors of folk, bluegrass, spiritual (even beyond the prominently featured Shaker hymn Simple Gifts) and patriotic song with style. The clarinet dominates this arrangement, and CSO principal clarinet Christopher Pell played with a distinct, supple tone throughout.

Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra © Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra
© Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra

The Star Spangled Banner is often played on opening nights in the United States. CSO’s concert instead began with Banner, a concerto grosso by Jessie Montgomery commissioned for the 200th anniversary of the National Anthem. Unfortunately, persistent streaming issues kept me from fully immersing myself in the 10-minute work, performed here by Catalyst Quartet. But Montgomery’s assertion that the American narrative contains a multitude of voices – suggested here by allusions to La Borinqueña, This Land Is Your Land and Lift Every Voice and Sing – came through loud and clear. The pre-recorded evening ended with an expressive performance of William Grant Still’s Summerland by the expert pianist Awadagin Pratt.

This performance was reviewed from the CSO video stream