ASO follows not a well-worn musical path

AUSTIN — The magnificent Paramount Theatre was the setting Sunday for the Austin Symphony Orchestra's delightful performance of "Blue Jeans, Billy and Beethoven."

The title referred to the nontraditional program that included native Minnesota guitarist Billy McLaughlin, wearing blue jeans, whose performance was sandwiched between two works by Beethoven.

The Paramount was cozily packed to the gills, and the visual of the orchestra tucked onto the stage was warm and inviting. As the orchestra began Beethoven's "Coriolan" overture, I spied several younger persons playing in the ensemble and once again marveled at Austin's musical traditions.

Soon enough, McLaughlin appeared. His selection of about eight songs was punctuated by an autobiographical narrative about how he had to relearn the guitar due to a chronic health condition. It was a family-friendly message about the power of music to heal, doing what one loves and not giving up.

The new-age tunes were lovely, with rapturous, lilting melodies and rhythms taking inspiration from McLaughlin's Irish roots. The influence of guitar wunderkind Michael Hedges was apparent. The all-strings accompaniment, though rough in places, was lush and harmonically unique in others, such as in "In the Light," and often based on an ostinato pattern.


Though one could be negative about this programmatic choice, I thought that it was wonderful because the music and message were accessible to the entire audience, including its younger members. It also offered a different horizon for the musicians. I admire the Austin Symphony's commitment to engaging its community and audience on every level.

The afternoon ended with Beethoven's well-known Symphony No. 7. The acoustics were great but the performance was uneven. Though there were repeatedly some issues in the brass and woodwinds, the strings generally carried the piece, with some especially lovely playing in the dirge-like second movement.

I'd never realized how difficult this work is, peaking and valleying, swooping from one theme to the next in often-rapid succession. The final movement sounded at times like a train about to run off the tracks. Yet conductor Ramsey held it together.

Considering the truly bombastic nature of Beethoven's writing, I believe that the Austin Symphony Orchestra performed the work admirably and deserves kudos for taking it on.

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