March 9, 2006

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CLASSICAL REVIEWS
Reviews by Jeff Rapsis jrapsis@hippopress.com

At NHSO, Elvis lives
Small audience takes in big performance
Review: It's not every day you hear new classical music inspired by the likes of pop culture icons Jackie Onassis and Elvis Presley. But that's what conductor Kenneth Kiesler brought to New Hampshire this past weekend, with crackerjack performances of Jackie's Song and Dead Elvis, two works for chamber ensemble by contemporary U.S. composer Michael Daugherty.

Daugherty, a colleague of Kiesler on the University of Michigan faculty, writes in a lively idiom that, unlike a lot of new music, often reaches out to listeners and grabs them by the lapels. As performed by the NHSO, both pieces achieved this effect, but in different ways.

Jackie's Song, excerpted from Daugherty's full length opera Jackie O, features a hair-raising extended cello solo which, at Saturday's Palace Theatre performance, was played brilliantly by principal cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer. The effect was one of intense emotional claustrophobia, of feelings so strong and personal it would be impossible to express or share any other way.

Dead Elvis, was a more extroverted piece, and not just because bassoon soloist Ronald Haroutunian performed the work decked out like the King himself. The music rocketed along, mixing pop rhythms with the Dies Irae from the Catholic death march.

In both scores, Daugherty calls for a lot from the musicians, and the NHSO delivered. At one point in Dead Elvis, the writing for the string bass is so high it caused principal bassist Robert Lyman to bend over his instrument and nearly touch his toes to get the notes.

The result was some of the most exciting music you'd be liable to hear in New Hampshire this season. The only regret is that the orchestra's late start in marketing itself has resulted in smaller audiences, which is unfortunate, as Kiesler has kept his side of the bargain by delivering performances that are exciting, compelling, and well worth attending.

Also on the program were a Vivaldi concerto for strings, played standing up, and Tchkaikovsky's familiar Serenade for Strings, which was ragged in a few places but packed a real wallop in the moving final sequence, when the work's slow opening theme returns and then morphs back into the raucous dance-like closing tune.

Kiesler ended the concert with an appeal for people to trek to Derry's Stockbridge Theatre in May for the group's final concerts this season. If this weekend's music is any clue, it'll be well worth the trip.


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