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Brainerd festival’s ‘Appalachian Spring’ program delivers musical firecrackers and nostalgia

August 12, 2018

What is it about the old tunes that tug at the heartstrings so? It is difficult to say, but they were casting their habitual magic spells Saturday evening at the Lakes Area Music Festival in Brainerd.

Baritone John Taylor Ward, the festival’s associate artistic director, sang five of Aaron Copland’s Old American Songs in the composer’s own orchestral arrangements.

These songs resonate with nostalgia for a simpler America of times gone by, and Taylor Ward’s mild, congenial baritone took you to a place where water lapped the bows of paddle steamers on the Mississippi and homespun music-making brightened the domestic parlor.

“Long Time Ago” was winsome and poignant in Ward Taylor’s affectionate interpretation, and the well-known “Simple Gifts” benefited from his clean, careful enunciation of the Shaker sentiments.

“The Dodger” — a witty paean to American pluck and adaptability — prickled with mischief, while Ward Taylor pulled a clutch of barnyard imitations from his vocal hat for the evergreen “I Bought Me a Cat.”

Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto followed, absorbing some of the sepia that tinted Ward Taylor’s musical journey into old America.

Suliman Tekalli was the soloist, and his swashbuckling manner in the concerto’s opening movement had a zest and snappiness that tapped the rhythms of a hoedown.

The slow movement opened with a gorgeous solo from oboist Henry Ward, on summer furlough from the Buffalo Philharmonic. Tekalli picked up Ward’s poetry and ran with it, eliciting a ripe, viola-like tone from his lower strings, with sweetly keening musings in the upper register.

In the hyperactive, strangely unsettled finale, Tekalli lit the firecrackers, and conductor Christian Reif kept the excellent festival orchestra tightly shackled to his spontaneously combusting soloist.

Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” came after intermission, but not in the version usually played by symphony orchestras, which has 10 minutes less music than the full-length ballet.

For this collaboration with St. Paul Ballet, the Lakes Area programmers turned to Copland’s original scoring for just 13 instrumentalists.

“Appalachian Spring” was first danced in 1944, and Martha Graham’s original choreography used costumes clearly related to the 19th-century setting in rural Pennsylvania.

Zoé Emilie Henrot’s contemporary updating ditched the pioneer trappings — her dancers were sheathed in Lycra bodysuits — and placed more emphasis on examining the emotional resonances of the ballet than on slavishly following its narrative scenario.

The dancers made expressive use of the limited space available, shrugging off the difficulty of having the musicians on stage behind them; the Tornstrom Auditorium has no orchestra pit, a major impediment when precise coordination with a conductor is needed.

That issue may be solved soon, however. Funding has recently been approved for a new community performing arts center in Brainerd, with the Lakes Area Music Festival as an anchor tenant.

That would be an exciting development for a festival now celebrating its 10th anniversary — where tickets are free, and audience responses have a freshness and spontaneity occasionally absent in the more culturally sated environment of the big city.

Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at artsblain@gmail.com.

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