by Kevin T McEneaney
Last Saturday at Smithfield Church in Amenia their annual Memorial Day concert with the Smithfield Chamber Orchestra was held under the direction of trumpeter Matt Finley who made all orchestral arrangements for the twelve performers. They opened with John Phillip Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever (1896) which remains a perennial favorite on Memorial Day weekend; it buoyant optimism is still contagious. While this piece most often functions as a closer, it is also a wonderful opener. Icarus by Ralph Towner (pianist, twelve-string guitarist, composer, and arranger), a key player in the Paul Winter Consort, followed with its mellow aerial theme where the upward dynamics of flight ended with dramatic suspension was an unexpected delight to me.
Ye Banks and Braes of Bonnie Doon (1932), a folk song arranged with some sophistication by Percy Granger followed. It’s rock-like lyrical solidity offered effective contrast to Towner. Last year local pianistic legend Larry Ham had played a new composition at the annual December Smithfield Concert & Tea, held on the first Saturday in December, entitled A Fond Farewell on piano; this year his piano was accompanied by eleven other performers in an arrangement by Matt Finley; I much preferred the orchestral version of the work, since the orchestra offered more tonal dramatic emotion and nuance. To continue that mood of memory and loss, Siciliene in G minor, Opus 80 (1893) by Gabriel Fauré was played with reflective, elegiac tempo.
Mood shifted with Matt Finley’s own composition, Good News (2018), a joyful work that celebrates the birth of a grandchild. Hitherto performed in a jazz quartet version, it now became an orchestral celebration with more genteel structure and appeal, being modified by the cool jazz tradition, yet appearing here as a work situated on the borders of classical music. Charles Gray on clarinet brimmed with subtlety.
Contrasting with the two previous intimate reflections, Theme from the Pink Panther (1963) by Henry Mancini followed. This robustly playful piece leaps with humor in its use of silence and sudden raucous outbursts from unified orchestra. On saxophone solos Alex Gray was memorably effective as was bassist Lou Pappas. The limber, amusing rhythms and dynamics of this piece remains an unusual American classic.
This was followed by another American classic, Legacy (1973) by Chuck Mangione, a tribute to the saxophonist and flute player Gerry Niewood, who played with Chuck for many years in the West Coast cool jazz tradition. (Niewood died in an airplane crash in 2009.) Flutists Lynnette Benner and Michelle Demko excelled with smooth texture in a piece that celebrates the tradition of that West Coast vibe in cool jazz from the sixties through the seventies.
The Heather on the Hill was from the 1954 Brigadoon film version by Lerner and Lowe; the song was sung by the actor-dancer Gene Kelly; it became a recording hit (I judge Kelly’s voice to be slightly thin yet effective). The romantic and sentimental slant of the lyrics are trite, while an orchestral version is more palatable where the strings of Concertmaster Rob Murphy on violin, Peter Kargul on viola, and Jean Vilkelis on cello permitted sentiment that was not corny.
Leroy Anderson’s The Syncopated Clock (1945) remains a hoot-and-a-half. This humorous piece of mainly drumming was superb with Denise Finley on drums, some audience members with ringing alarm clocks, and Denise abandoning drums to stroll through the audience with her ringing alarm clock.
The euphoric closer was New York, New York by John Kander, which is always played at Times Square on New Year’s Eve. The New Year’s Eve version, when played live, is usually poorly played and even more poorly sung. (Yes, they are attempting to compete with Frank Sinatra, yet they are miles away.) This happy conclusion had lift and subtlety; perhaps NYC should hire The Smithfield Orchestra for next New Year’s Eve! Matt Finley on trumpet and Steve Hubbert on trombone were wonderful! And those strings made a big difference!
P.S. A video recording of this concert was made by Stan Hirson and will soon be available on the internet @ thesmithfieldchurch.org