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John Lamb, Published September 24 2013

A British invasion for the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra

FARGO - The British are coming!

This time the cry is not an anxious call to arms but rather a sign of excitement and anticipation.

The Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra season opens Saturday night with the first concert featuring new conductor Christopher Zimmerman.

The British-born artist, based in Virginia, delivers a season bookended by English composers Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams, with a number of other English works performed along the way. Part of the programming is to mark what would have been Britten’s 100th birthday on Nov. 22.

The season also draws on stateside composers, with the Jan. 11 and 12 concerts featuring works by Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, John Adams and Jonathan Leshnoff in a show called, “American Genius.”

“It’s a little selfish,” Zimmerman says with a laugh. “I’m American and English, so it fits my life.”

On Monday, the day after his first rehearsal with his new group, Zimmerman was feeling a lot of love in his life. Making his way through a coffee shop, he stopped and shook hands with customers like a longtime friend, not someone new to town.

In addition to extending a hand, the symphony presents him with a gift this weekend. Bassoonist Russell Peterson composed “Red River Overture (From the Thames to the Red),” to be featured in these concerts, titled “Welcome, Maestro Zimmerman!”

“That is so nice,” Zimmerman says. “No one has done that before for me.”

He describes the work as “accessible” and “upbeat,” a good balance to his opener, Britten’s “Sinfonia da Requiem.”

Dramatic work

“Requiem” was considered too gloomy and Christian to be performed in Japan, which rejected the music, though it paid for its commission. The composition premiered in 1941 in New York after Britten had moved to America.

“It’s so grim,” says Zimmerman.

Indeed, the opening of the piece, “Lacrymosa” (Latin for mournful), starts off very stark and downbeat but builds to the final movement, “Requiem.”

“It’s very lugubrious, struggling, trying to get out,” Zimmerman says, describing the work as more dramatic than depressing.

The following piece, Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending” is significantly lighter, featuring a violin solo by Morganne McIntyre, a home-schooled high school senior who won the 2013 Young Artist Solo Competition.

Zimmerman is cautious to use the word “light” in reference to music, preferring “challenging” works over “easy listening.”

“I don’t think it should be relaxing,” he says. “I think it should be moving.”

Ultimately, he adds, it’s a matter of balance, striking the right mix between dark and light and not overdoing it on either extreme.

The concerts end with Jean Sibelius’ “Symphony No. 2,” a work Zimmerman says goes from human conflict to catharsis.

“The ending is very radiant,” he says.

Just as the concerts will end on a high note, he said the Sunday night rehearsal with the orchestra was filled with energy, noting that there are expectations of him as well as his expectations of the musicians.

In addition to expanding the repertoire of the players, he wants to inspire them to practice and really listen to each other, rather than just play along.

“I’m trying to get the orchestra to buy into that philosophy,” he explains. “I want them to not only sound as good as possible, but unleash the intent of the music.”

So far, he’s happy with the results.

“People are not cynical. I really feel supported,” he says. “It makes me feel that I can be collaborative more than ever.”

While he says the symphony isn’t a democracy, as a director he needs the musicians to willingly follow him rather than drag them along.

Similarly, he isn’t trying to force a British theme on the listeners. He even shies away from using the word “theme” in reference to the thread in works selected.

“I’m a little wary of trying too hard to make it an academic theme,” he says. “I don’t think there’s a huge connection (between British and American music), which is a good thing because there’s diversity in the music.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533