America’s regional orchestras can be surprisingly good – and that expertise was on fine display at the Des Moines Symphony Orchestra’s concert led by guest conductor JoAnn Falletta. Her program had an Austro-German flavor of Brahms and Bruckner sandwiching a concerto by American composer William Bolcom.

JoAnn Falletta © Cheryl Gorski
JoAnn Falletta
© Cheryl Gorski

“One laughs, the other weeps,” Brahms famously said of his two concert overtures, the Academic Festival and the Tragic, composed nearly in tandem with one another. And it’s true that the Academic Festival finds the composer in good spirits, even as he employs the largest orchestra in any of his symphonic works.

Brahms also characterized the overture as “a potpourri à la Suppé” – but of course it’s much more than that. Tonight’s performance was finely constructed, with Falletta introducing each of the four major melodies based on student drinking songs while giving full measure to Brahms’ mastery of creativity in interweaving contrasting themes, counterpoint and variations. The concluding section where Brahms employs the theme Gaudeamus igitur was dazzling, with the Des Moines brass bursting forth with stentorian power.

Like several other notable Americans, the compositions of William Bolcom have evolved from early-career serial modernist to an audience-friendly style incorporating diverse influences that stretch the boundaries between musical genres. The 1999 Concerto Grosso is no exception, beginning with the four saxophones as the featured concertante instruments. The concerto’s four movements may be conventional in form – sonata, waltz and so on – but the character is more “pop” than “classical” and the music doesn’t aspire to plumb any great emotional depths. In the first movement (Lively), the Oasis Saxophone Quartet emphasized the bluesy harmonies, while the Larghetto that followed (Song without Words) was lyrical. As the most introspective of the four movements, I found it the most compelling. The Valse had more than a little French feel to it, reminiscent of the music of Alfred Desenclos and Henri Tomasi, and its flavor served as a reminder that Bolcom studied in Paris during his formative years. For the exhilarating final movement it was back to America, evoking the flapper era, R&B and bebop all at once.

Throughout the 20-minute work, the Oasis saxophonists exhibited excellent ensemble and razor-sharp precision – along with edge-of-your-seat excitement in the livelier sections. Falletta and the orchestra provided appropriately sassy and splashy support, fully in keeping with the élan of the soloists’ performance. With such a sizzling performance, it’s no wonder Saturday’s audience responded enthusiastically. An encore, a movement from Martin Bresnick’s suite Everything Must Go – was of a vastly different character. The lyrical poignancy of this quiet gem concluded with four breathtaking chords that seemed stay suspended in air, in a hall so quiet you could hear a pin drop.

Returning to Central Europe, the Des Moines program concluded with Bruckner’s Symphony no. 4, arguably the composer’s most popular. Depending on how you count them, there are as few as three and as many as seven versions of the piece. For her performance, Falletta selected the 1953 Nowak Edition, which has substantial differences in the final movement in particular. A common description of Bruckner’s symphonies is that they are “cathedrals of sound” and the Des Moines Symphony players lived up to that characterization. In the first movement, the hushed introduction and solo horn immediately set the stage for a musical journey where tempos were broad but never sluggish, employing wonderful contrasts before building to a stirring conclusion.

In the Andante, Falletta successfully avoided the episodic nature that this movement can sometimes seem to have, imbuing it with a coherence that made the orchestral climax that much more powerful and effective prior to the concluding statement of the horn and woodwinds, itself a spellbinding moment. I was particularly impressed with the “hunt” motifs in the third movement Scherzo. Led by horns and trumpet, the Des Moines brass section brought forth some really impressive fanfares; a few minor intonation errors could hardly be faulted, as they did little to reduce the thrilling effect overall.

I am not a particular fan of the Nowak Edition’s treatment of the final movement, preferring the Haas Edition of the 1878-80 version of the symphony. That said, Falletta made the best possible case for a movement that gave Bruckner more than his share of heartache. The pulsating lower strings with the lonely trumpet calls were truly ominous, then bursting forth with powerful brass and dynamic timpani. The contrasting quieter sections worked beautifully, too, with string ensemble particularly winsome. The buildup to the final climax of the full orchestra was spine-tingling and cathartic. In sum, Falletta and her committed Des Moines musicians did more than deliver a creditable performance of this beloved Bruckner symphony; they turned it into a soul-satisfying triumph.