Music in Arizona? A reader might scoff. Arizona is to vacation in.
Still, it's possible for a classical listener to have a gratifyingly musical time of it in southern Arizona, as I found in spending a weekend in early January there, with the symphony orchestras of both Phoenix and Tucson offering concerts. I got to hear some unusual approaches to Brahms.
Phoenix's music director, Tito Muñoz, is in his first season. Tucson's, George Hanson, is retiring at the end of this season after 19 years. I saw neither, though, as both concerts were led by guest conductors.
Phoenix, like any respectable major metropolitan center, has an appropriately majestic concert venue downtown. Symphony Hall, built in 1972, is a ribbed concrete edifice attached to the adjoining Convention Center. Inside, through the spacious atrium, is a wide, gently-raked auditorium with limited balconies, paneled in warm, light wood, and reverberating with beefy acoustics.
The Phoenix Symphony concert on Friday featured Brahms's Symphony No. 3, a performance so broadly-paced and of gentle mien that it sounded more like the pastoral Second than the usually "heroic" Third. Guest conductor James Feddeck, formerly Assistant Conductor with the Cleveland Orchestra, led subjectively, with merely generally indicative gestures.
The effect was entirely different in the tight, punchy Russian pieces in the first half: a quick, dancing Shostakovich Festive Overture, and Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2, with impressively light and feathery work from soloist Vadym Kholodenko.
Phoenix features scarily powerful brass and a deeply woody wind choir. Only the strings are less well-served. A bit thin and stretched in Brahms's fortes, this was less of a problem at other times.
The Tucson Symphony plays in various locations around town, saving some of its best concerts for Catalina Foothills High School in the unincorporated suburbs north of the city, because Hanson believes the Music Hall there has the best acoustics in the state. It's certainly bright and vivid, though very small and with some awkward poles. I heard Saturday evening's performance there, after a drive of less than two hours on the freeway from Phoenix.
Guest conductor Keitaro Harada, a regular with the orchestra who is also Associate Conductor of the Arizona Opera, is an opposite to Feddeck in conducting style. He leads with precise, energetic gestures, and the orchestra responded with precision and energy. A bursting little Mozart Symphony No. 32, the smallest of his mature symphonies, and a colorful suite from Falla's El amor brujo were finely done.
Still, they gave no hint of what Harada had in mind for Brahms's Serenade No. 1, Op. 11. Played with a rough country dance flavor, it coiled inward with exaggerated swells and diminuendos, accelerations and ritardandos, plus one big surprise Harada mysteriously alluded to in his pre-concert talk. For the Menuetto movement, he reverted to the work's original chamber instrumentation, allowing concertmaster Lauren Roth and the other soloists to play without conducting.
Though Tucson fielded a smaller orchestra than Phoenix did, it is hardly less accomplished, though Phoenix gives off the more exciting playing. Tucson has brasher horns, more pungent winds, and – at least in this venue – mellower strings, resulting in a good balance all around. I was impressed with the players' quick response to Harada's directions.
There was more to my musical trip to Arizona than those two symphony concerts. A notice in the calendar section of the Arizona Republic led me on Saturday afternoon to the Center for the Arts in Chandler, a town just south of Phoenix, for a chamber concert by members of the Chandler Symphony. This is a volunteer group, so professional quality work was not expected. Still, there was delight to be had in the premiere of works for mixed quartet (alto flute, horn, bassoon, and cello) by Woody Norvell, a Virginia composer whose degree is from Arizona State, and some other music – including more Brahms, a movement from his Sextet in B-flat. Like both the symphony concerts, this was well-attended.
The true highlight of my journey, however, was elsewhere. Up at the north end of Phoenix – some 20 miles from downtown; this is a spread-out city – lies the new (less than five years old) and quite fabulous Musical Instrument Museum. What makes this place amazing is not just the immense collection of thousands of instruments from around the world, all labeled with date and place of origin and maker, if known. Nothing was really rare, and little very old, yet the variety was captivating.
Nor does the true appeal lie in the intelligent and comprehensive organization, with a separate panel display for, almost literally, every country in the world. Some larger and more complex countries have multiple panels. A whole gallery for the U.S. and Canada is divided into panels for dozens of varieties of vernacular American music (highly commercial genres tend to be skipped over), with several panels devoted to the manufacture of instruments. Each other region of the world, from Latin America to the Middle East, also has its gallery, and there are some specialized ones, like a gallery full of mechanical instruments.
What really grabs the interest here is the videos. Each panel has a video display playing a loop of, usually, three or four clips, each 15-70 seconds long, of samples of music from the country or musical tradition described. Visitors are issued headphones with receivers picking up the audio from wireless hotspots.
These are engrossing. I spent two hours in the European gallery alone and still didn't take the time to hear everything. To traverse the entire museum at that rate would take all day, at least. Even a quick run-through is a systematic education in world music. It didn't take long to get a sense of styles and begin to realize which ones I liked and which I did not.
The only problem was that my receivers kept running out of juice. I had to trade in three sets during my visit. The staff said they're not supposed to do that. Maybe I was listening to too many of the videos.
About one-third of the clips in the European gallery are classical; the rest are mostly concert performances or field recordings of folk music or folk-influenced pop groups. A three-panel display on the history of the orchestra is the centerpiece, with music from Bach down to Berio and Xenakis, who are the museum's idea of modern composers. As this is a museum for instruments, the focus is away from vocal music. Though there are plenty of folk singers, in the classical panels there's more ballet than opera, and virtually no concert vocal music at all.
Classical performers do make an occasional appearance elsewhere in the museum. The U.S. gallery has a local Arizona section with a panel for the Phoenix Symphony and Arizona Opera. Over in the Oceania gallery, the Australia panel's videos feature two Aboriginal groups, plus an Australian stockman-type folk singer with a cowboy hat and a guitar, and the great diva Joan Sutherland. So visitors never know what they'll stumble on next.
Add to that excellent classical radio stations in both Phoenix and Tucson, and I was content.
Certainly I hadn't expected to stumble upon so much interesting music in Arizona. It was a rewarding visit.