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REVIEW: Stirring American Musical Heroes (Minnesota Orchestra)

Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. Photo by George Heinrich Photography.

The Minnesota Orchestra is getting its flirt on. No, not some sort of brass-woodwinds or string-percussion imbroglio – flirting with the audience. The ensemble’s American Musical Heroes program, playing this weekend, is a grand tease, leaving the audience wanting more of just about every piece.

The program, stirringly led by Ken-David Masur, began strongly on Friday with film composer John Williams’ music for the 1996 Summer Olympics. The arrangement by Calvin Custer, entitled Summon the Heroes, captures one of the best Olympic Games themes of the last 25 years. Trumpeter Manny Laureano shined with a brilliant, soaring high trumpet solo, and Masur brought the piece to a powerful close with a rollercoaster through the thrilling, toe-tapping finale.

The second piece, the first movement of Amy Beach’s Gaelic Symphony (Opus 32), started with all of the instant atmosphere of a good theatre overture. The piece is replete with interesting musical themes and lyrical writing; many sections would be a strong accompaniment to a great ballet. Its most gripping moment was a passage when the double basses seized the swell, with Masur steering the orchestra with lithe but powerful strokes, like a helmsman at the wheel in a thrashing storm. As the excerpt came to a close, the only thing wrong was that the audience didn’t get to hear the other three movements.

Next came a pair of two concerted dance pieces, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s Alla Sarabande and Alla Burletta. An internal section of the former featuring a beautiful little string quartet was one of the highlights.

This was followed by Samuel Barber’s Essay No. 1 (Opus 12), a highly evocative piece that premiered amidst the dawning of World War 2 in 1938. The work recalls Barber’s famous Adagio for Strings in more ways than one, with mounting tension as the thick harmonic clouds swell and ebb. The strong sense of foreboding was deliciously teased out by Masur. By the time the brass choir blares onto the scene, any looming menace that you’d like to associate seems a convincing subject for this unofficial program music. 

William Hirtz’s Wizard of Oz Fantasy rolled out next, performed by Jon Kimura Parker in its solo piano version. Dropping with the bombastic ferocity of a Liszt keyboard fantasy, this journey through the familiar transformed was odd only in its placement in the program.

Pianist Jon Kimura Parker. Photo by Tara McMullen.

The final pieces on the program were the final movement of William Grant Still’s excellent Symphony No. 2, subtitled Song of a New Race, and the Allegro movement from George Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F. The former, written in 1937, is an excellent piece that is enjoying a well-deserved return to American concert halls; in Masur’s hands, the Minnesota Orchestra makes you wish that the ensemble was doing this full symphony on August 27-28, rather than the composer’s more frequently programmed Symphony No. 1. The latter, written 1924-1925, is a serviceable slice of Americana.

Let’s be clear: it’s not that Gershwin’s concerto is bad per se – it’s a fine light concerto that strongly evokes the popular music of its time, and Parker played the featured piano part well. With so many other teasing excerpts by less-programmed composers, however, it seemed superfluous. Another movement of William Grant Still or Amy Beach’s excellent but underperformed symphonies would have been most welcome in its place.


  • Friday’s concert was part of the Minnesota Orchestra’s return to live, in-person concerts at Orchestra Hall.
  • William Hirtz’s Wizard of Oz Fantasy exists in solo piano and piano duo versions. The solo piano version was written for and premiered by Jon Kimura Parker.
  • African American Composer Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s namesake is Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875–1912), himself of African and British ancestry.
  • Samuel Barber’s Essay No. 1 (Opus 12) was one of the first works to be performed by the then-new NBC Orchestra in 1937. Some 59 years later, NBC hired the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra to perform John Williams’ Summon the Heroes for the 1996 Olympic Games, the NBC Orchestra having been shut down in 1954.

The Minnesota Orchestra’s American Musical Heroes program plays through Sunday, August 1 at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, MN.

Basil Considine