Memphis Symphony Orchestra pays homage to Copland, Bach, Strauss

The Memphis Symphony Orchestra opened its 2013-14 season Saturday night by going larger than life.

The program at the Cannon Performing Arts Center, titled “Lincoln Portrait,” refers to the opening piece by the same name, a rousing tribute to Abraham Lincoln by Aaron Copland. It was created during World War II, one of several works by different composers commissioned to celebrate and exalt the American way.

It was a time when Copland had perfected how to wrangle American tunes and elevate them into anthems. The piece honors the 16th president, but it is a fully Coplandian expression, done around the time the composer created “Rodeo,” “Appalachian Spring” and “Fanfare for the Common Man.”

The MSO knows how to play big, and maestro Mei-Ann Chen expertly guided the orchestra from fruited plains to purple mountains majesty. The narrative, featuring excerpts from some of Lincoln’s most profound speeches and writings, was given a dignified reading by Gayle Rose, chairman of the Memphis Symphony board of directors.

If “Lincoln Portrait” was emblematic of Copland, then the following piece, Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins and Orchestra, was similarly quintessentially Bach. It’s one of his best and best known works, taking the listener to a familiar and exhilarating place.

Of the two soloists, Joy Brown Wiener, was the sentimental favorite. The 84-year-old former concertmaster of the MSO had held that position for 40 years when she announced, at age 62, that she’d be retiring at the end of the 1991-92 season.

She’s continued to play and teach since then, and her skills were duly recognized by the appreciative audience.

Her partner in the Bach was Ellen Cockerham, the latest in a series of guest concertmasters who have been filling in since Susanna Perry Gilmore left for the Omaha Symphony in mid-2012. Cockerham was spot-on performing the Bach, but her virtuosity really came out in the evening’s final work, Richard Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben” (A Hero’s Life).

Strauss’ tone poem is an ambitious piece honoring, the composer said, any heroic character whose ideals and character deserve approbation. The work is largely about Strauss, however, who, backed by a healthy ego, had already cranked out several notable compositions, including “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” “Don Juan,” “Don Quixote” and “Till Eulenspiegel.”

It is an engaging piece, with grandeur and wit, and — like the Copland and Bach — very much a reflection of the composer. There were nine horns, which were given a lot to do and did it well.

But the star was Cockerham’s exquisite playing in the portion of the piece known as “The Hero’s Helpmate.” Strauss was honoring his wife, an operatic soprano who was said to be complex, eccentric and outspoken — qualities one might find in a diva. Strauss’ composition was loving, and Cockerham brought an extraordinary range of expression to the performance.

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