"Americana," the latest program from the Maui Chamber Orchestra at the Iao Theatre in Wailuku (played March 24 and 25), added up to a crash course in the so-called "American sound" of Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, and Virgil Thomson. Or should I say a marathon? The concert clocked in at a punishing two and a half hours. Less could have been more.
The first half, devoted to Copland, opened with the sassy Hoe-Down from the ballet Rodeo and the 13-piece chamber version of the suite from the ballet Appalachian Spring, both under the baton of MCO's energetic founder and music director Robert E. Wills. Then Wills ceded the podium to the violinist Michael Russell, and faced the house to sing, with stalwart spirit but faltering breath, Copland's sometimes rowdy, sometimes sentimental "Old American Songs"—both parts and all ten selections. Between sets Wills poked fun at himself for biting off more than he could chew. The joke, I'm afraid, was on the folks out front.
Setting a different standard: Audrey Luna.
In "Knoxville," Maui audiences got an unusual and more intimate perspective on Luna's art. James Agee's text evokes an evening with his family when he was a boy of four, cocooned in a domestic paradise ultimately not lacking its existential shadows. Barber's gently romantic setting takes a cue from the image of a hanging swing on a porch. Luna gave the innocent, rocking phrases a lovely transparency, but her finest moment came at the close in high-lying pianissimo lines hinting at heartache to come.
Thomson's 25-minute score for the New Deal documentary The River made an unwieldy chaser. That said, it's a magnificent piece. Movement titles like "The Old South," "Industrial Expansion in the Mississippi Valley," and "Soil Erosion and Floods" may hint at the imagery (the film was not shown) but hardly begin to suggest musical zest and color. As seems to be the norm with MCO, the strings held to pretty much the same dynamic throughout and were seldom in complete agreement as to pitch. As a general matter, greater discretion from the percussion would not have been amiss. Occasional solo passages for the woodwinds came through with authority, but the brass, of whom Thomson expects panache, were flying by the seat of their pants. If, as I suspect, a properly maintained acoustic piano is a luxury the MCO cannot afford, upgrading the electric keyboard must be an urgent priority.