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Detroit Symphony Raises the Roof

Posted: Oct 21, 2003 - 12:07:27 AM in reviews_2003

(first published in The Cincinnati Post Oct. 20, 2003)

An historic hall undergoes renovation in an inner-city neighborhood.

A school for the performing arts goes up next door.

Cincinnati? No, Detroit, except it's already in place in the Motor City.

Stalled a decade ago under a mountain of debt and tepid leadership, the Detroit Symphony is rolling again in a big way.

Saturday night's concert at Orchestra Hall in Detroit climaxed a week-long celebration marking the opening of the DSO's $60 million Max M. Fisher Music Center.

Dubbed "Raise the Roof" in honor of the occasion and a world premiere by resident composer Michael Daugherty, the program also featured Duke Ellington's "Harlem" Suite, Michigan composer Leslie Bassett's Concerto for Orchestra and Detroit native James Carter performing Roberto Sierra's Concerto for Saxophones.

On the podium was the man responsible for the DSO's artistic rebirth, music director Neeme Järvi (father of Cincinnati Symphony music director Paavo Järvi).

"The Max," a four-story, multi-purpose addition adjoining Orchestra Hall -- a 2000-seat acoustical gem -- was jumping, with a free weekend music marathon including everything from gospel to gamelan.

Behind "The Max," the new $122.5 million Detroit High School for the Fine, Performing and Communications Arts could be seen. To be completed in 2005, it and DSO-owned commercial space nearby are components of "Orchestra Place," a visionary, $220 million urban renewal project engineered by DSO and community leaders.

The charismatic Järvi has made a point of performing American music since coming to Detroit in 1990, including many works by African American composers. A protean figure with over 350 recordings, Järvi has an insatiable musical appetite, including a remarkable affinity for jazz. It was worth the four-hour trip to hear him conduct "Harlem," where he grooved physically with his players (as it turns out, Järvi's older brother Vallo was leader of a jazz ensemble in Tartu, Estonia).

It was equally rewarding to hear and watch him work with Carter, a jazz phenom who can do anything with a sax and did, on both tenor and soprano. He was all over the instruments, smelling the roses in the lovely slow movement, shifting into high gear in the wild, improvised cadenza.

Daugherty's "Raise the Roof" (infused with Gregorian chant to recall cathedral building) was a tour de force for DSO timpanist Brian Jones, who played melodies using the timpani pedals and addressed his five drums with mallets, brushes and bare hands. Bassett's lavishly scored Concerto offered its own "building" analogy through use of a cell-like motif and columns of sound layered note by note.

Carter thrilled the crowd by returning for the encore, Ellington's "Take the A Train," where he jammed -- to the max -- with Järvi and the DSO.