Spectacular is not a word one generally associates with the Midcoast Symphony Orchestra, but that is the only way to describe the performance of Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, with soloist Peter Jenkin, Saturday night at the Franco-American Heritage Center.

Jenkin, a noted Australian musician, would have been admired by Benny Goodman, who commissioned the work.

The first movement of the concerto, marked “Slowly and expressively,” evokes the atmosphere of “Appalachian Spring,” wistful and melodic, demanding a pure singing tone, blending with the strings.

Then there is a slow waltz, which seems to have been inspired by Ravel.

It ends in pyrotechnics, with a cadenza that seems to push the limits of the instrument.

The movement that follows, “Rather fast,” leaves that cadenza in the dust, with virtually impossible transitions from low to high, jazzy interludes, rapid scales and arpeggios and whatever Copland and Goodman could dream up.

The string orchestra, with harp and piano, is an equal partner in all of this, echoing, doubling and contrasting, in difficult syncopated rhythms.

Under music director Rohan Smith, it succeeded admirably.

The program opened at a startling volume with Wagner’s Overture to “Der fliegende Hollander.”

Some of the chords in the brass were a little sour at first, but improved as the musicians warmed up.

I found the woodwind sections depicting the Dutchman’s doomed love, Senta, to be a bit muted, but Wagner is not noted for his political correctness.

I should probably recuse myself from comment on the final work on the program, Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 97 (Rhenish).

I find all of his symphonies turgid and boring, with a few good themes, like the first one in the “Rhenish,” that soon vanish in the murk.

On the other hand, what the orchestra did with the work was heroic, often emerging with an intact melody line like a retriever coming from a swamp with a gold ring in its mouth.

Every section of the orchestra outdid itself.

The strings were right on, the brass choir resounded, and the French horns were outstanding.

One could have danced to the beer-hall music of the Scherzo, while the “Nicht schnell,” which serves the function of a minuet, was appropriately delicate.

The final movement, a triumphant hymn that recalls Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress …” was almost enough to change my mind about the whole thing … but not quite.

The large audience gave both the Copland and the Schumann a standing ovation. 

Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at:

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