After a one-month absence to allow for a guest conductor, Quad City Symphony Orchestra (QCSO) Music Director Donald Schleicher returned to the podium to conduct a concert of extremes on March 2: silly juxtaposed with the serious, German romanticism alongside “contemporary” American music, and program music leading into pure music. Helping to make the concert even better was acclaimed New York Philharmonic Concertmaster Glenn Dicterow. In the process of weaving together Barber and Brahms, the orchestra and Dicterow produced some very fine music.

Schleicher chose Samuel Barber’s Overture to the School for Scandal to begin the concert. Written in a sonata form, heavily orchestrated like many of Barber’s pieces, the piece conveys a heavy forward motion, an unrelenting and sometimes frenetic pace that leaves listeners breathless but fulfilled.

The second piece on the program was Aaron Copland’s suite from his incidental music for Our Town. Where Barber was heavy and obvious, Copland’s approach was subtle and complementary, even saying that he didn’t want the music to detract from the performance.

The final piece of the first half was Leonard Bernstein’s rollicking Divertimento for Orchestra, commissioned to celebrate the anniversary of the Boston Symphony. Bernstein eschewed any attempt at serious composition with the Divertimento, embracing the true spirit of the form and creating a confluence of his collected musical styles.

While none of the three pieces would have worked well in isolation, together they created a brilliant and well-defined first half. Schleicher’s fascination with and appreciation of American music is heartening, because too often America’s compositional voice is lost under the din of the European greats. Schleicher took a measured approach to the concert, the brass section was in rare form, and the percussion (which had seen little action since the fall performance of the Vine Percussion Symphony) shone brightly in the Divertimento.

Schleicher’s willingness to combine three smaller, perhaps even less significant, works ahead of the epic Brahms Violin Concerto demonstrated artistic bravery. After all, according to Robert Schumann, it is Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. But the selection also showed Schleicher’s deep understanding of the role these three composers played in shaping the contemporary classical-music scene.

After intermission, Glenn Dicterow strode onto the stage, ready to climb the summit of the Brahms Violin Concerto. An accomplished soloist, he was up to the task.

A mammoth piece, the Violin Concerto is as large a work for violin and orchestra as the Busoni Piano Concerto is for the piano. Added to its sheer size, Brahms tended to write like a pianist for stringed instruments, effectively increasing the difficulty and skill required to perform his music.

It seems there are two ways to approach the concerto. First, one could muscle one’s way through the music, honing in on the dramatic elements. Or the orchestra and soloist could approach it elegantly, meandering a little, paying attention to the details and polishing where necessary.

The QCSO and Dicterow did a little of both. Dicterow performed exquisitely; his technique and warmth were plainly obvious. What he lacked in flash and a penchant for effect he made up for in sheer command of the music. Even in the rondo finale, Dicterow was controlled; he never let the music get away from him.

Conversely, the QCSO was sometimes muddy-sounding, seemingly having to force its way through the music, mustering all the energy it could to get the job done – never yielding to the music, but never quite mastering it either. Of course, given the huge demands made by the work and its symphonic scope, this is not surprising.

Though the work of the orchestra didn’t match the prowess of the soloist, Schleicher kept everything under control, demonstrating a real understanding of his orchestra.

Despite the differences, the overall feeling of the piece was conservative and refined; few chances were taken. Dicterow meshed well with the orchestra, and the acoustics of Centennial Hall produced a richer sound than I remembered.

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