If Saturday’s concert at North Dakota State University’s Festival Concert Hall is any indication, the rest of the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra season will be filled with exciting works and electrifying performances.
Musical Director Christopher Zimmerman welcomed audiences back for the first live FMSO live concert in 20 months with new new commissions, two guest artists, a bill that at times sounded more like a jazz concert and, oh yeah, a little Ludwig van Beethoven.
On most nights Beethoven would be the star of the show, but the great composer sounded a little out of place Saturday night. Not that FMSO musicians did him any disservice, their performance of his “Symphony No. 1” was flawless and spirited. It’s just that most nights don’t feature two works composed specifically for those same musicians.
Erberk Eryilmaz wowed the crowd and the musicians with the premiere of his “Piyanomun Düğümü (My Piano’s Knot)”. The title may suggest a problem with the piano and at times the composer looked like a car mechanic under the hood as he reached inside the instrument’s body with one hand to hit the strings while playing the keys with his other hand.
Yeah, this wasn’t Beethoven’s classical music. The contemporary piece is largely inspired by Turkish folk music. Eryilmaz explained in a pre-show talk that piano isn’t a Turkish folk music instrument, so he tries to find ways to create percussive sounds. He achieved this not only by hitting the strings, but sometimes keeping a beat on the keys.
The symphony’s percussionists also got a workout on the song with David Eyler creating distant thunder on the tympani and Tom Christianson creating eerie wisps by bowing Greek cymbals called crotali. Other musicians also got in on the percussive theme with the bass section tapping on the bodies of their instruments.
The work may have been difficult to perform, but it was a joy to listen to and watch. Zimmerman had said the show would be upbeat, but Eryilmaz’s thrilling piece was like an all out race, a fitting follow-up to Leonard Bernstein’s “Prelude, Fugue and Riffs,” which rolled like traffic down big city streets with a chorus trumpets, trombones and five saxophones. The piece revved up, slowed down, peeled out again, then took a jazzy stroll down the sidewalk with bassist Jeff Seabloom slapping the strings.
Pianist Dave Ferreira was brought in on the piece to add to the jazzy feel and again the percussionists had fun keeping the beat, but the piece really gave an idea of what guest Ismail Lumanovski could do as the clarinetist took a solo.
He was more fully highlighted by FMSO bassoonist/saxophonist Russell Peterson who wrote, “Gypsy Concerto” for Lumanovski and his friends in the FMSO. As the bandleader of the popular covers band, Post-Traumatic Funk Syndrome, Peterson knows his way around flashy solos, so it only makes sense that he wrote some choice licks for his fellow woodwind man.
As exciting to watch as he is to hear, Lumanovski put on a clinic of Romani music, even switching from the more standard B flat clarinet to a G clarinet used in Turkish music for its sweet and deeper sound. Concertmaster Sonja Bosca-Harasim also set the tone with her evocative violin and Peterson swapped his bassoon for a sax mid-number for some call and response passages.
(It was a busy day for Peterson, who that morning ran a leg in the relay of the Fargo Marathon. Fellow FMSO violist Anna Goodin-Hayes ran the half and violinist Justin Hayes ran the full marathon.)
In a pre-show talk Zimmerman billed the show as “unalloyed exuberance and sheer happiness” and he wasn’t wrong. However, he declined to mention that the actual concert would be preceded by an unlisted performance of Johannes Brahms’ “Spiritual Song” by a string quartet and the conductor on piano, in memory of all of who have died and suffered due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was as moving as the rest of the concert was uplifting and offered a moment to reflect on how we relate to each other and artistic expression, like the wonderful return of live music.
The concert repeats Sunday afternoon. All musicians, staff and audience members are required to wear masks and social distancing won’t likely be a problem as the 1,000-seat Festival Concert Hall seemed about only a quarter full.
If you go
What: FM Symphony Masterworks 1
When: 2 p.m., Sunday
Where: Festival Concert Hall, NDSU
Info: Tickets range from $14 - $50, all musicians, staff and audience members must wear protective face masks, https://www.fmsymphony.org