Mendelssohn, Symphonicity and Invencia Piano Duo

The year was 1823 and child genius Felix Mendelssohn's sister Fanny was turning eighteen on November 14th. For the occasion fourteen year-old Felix had written Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra in E Major. The first performance would be in December at their grand Berlin home at the family's weekly Sunday concerts with Fanny and Felix as soloists . We got a peek inside that rarefied world when Symphonicity, the symphony orchestra of Virginia Beach, presented pianists Oksana Lutsyshyn and Andrey Kasparov on the stage of Sandler Center on November 22, 2009. After a lengthy orchestral opening of rich beauty the pianists precise, fleet finger-work demonstrated what accomplished players the Mendelssohn children must have been. The classical form of the concerto was highlighted and brilliantly played but took no Romantic liberties of broader tempos or fluctuation in playing. Think Mozart, not Liszt. Kasparov played the more treble part leaving the more bass part to Ms. Lutsyshyn, thus achieving a balance while tossing virtuosic passage work back and forth. The high velocity finale demonstrated the composer’s ability to organize athletic playing into a taut structure at age fourteen. Symphonicity's playing was excellent. Having an acoustically fine, handsome new home has strengthened the group's overall sound quality. The combination of Mendelssohn's music, David Kunkel's conducting, duo pianists Lutsyshyn and Kasparov and orchestra was a happy occasion, the music coming out with airy grace and a fitting sense of effortlessness.

The opening piece, the Overture to the opera Tannhäuser by Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883), features extra brass and percussion and encapsulates musically the conflict between sacred love of a woman for a man and the profane love of Venus. The emotional peaks and valleys of the opera are woven into the overture, ending with a soft moan.

This was followed by the Mendelssohn, ending the first half. The pianists acknowledged the enthusiastic audience with several bows and then treated us to an encore: Florent Schmitt (1870-1958) Viennese Rhapsody, part of the duo's new recording project for Albany Records of all the piano music by Schmitt.

The last half was a traverse of the Symphony no.9, in E minor (“From the New World”) by Anton Dvorák (1841-1904). The subtitle comes from his writing the symphony during his three year stay in the U.S. where he wrote some of his finest works. His art seems to have been intensified by the influence of Negro melodies and his own homesickness.

Listening to the first movement I could hear folk elements and a certain wide-spaced openness. Think Mahler and Copland. The hell-bent-for-leather pacing and quiet pastoral elements come and go. Wild flocks of birds, opening-up music of sunrises, great roiling sound as wide as the world can all be found here. The Large second movement, has an intense, expansive feeling and the “Going Home” theme evokes the energy of a spiritual. The quiet passages shimmer in this hall – maybe the shimmer is always here but the louder sounds cover it. The third movement was the liveliest and most light-hearted and fastest. In the fourth, the “Going Home” theme re-emerges as variations on treble instruments that opened out and expanded the soundscape. It was spectacular! Was it the sound of the American west? I hear it in Copland's Rodeo and Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite. It began here in Dvorák. After quiet passages a series of powerful chords brings our musical experience to a close. The orchestral sound was cohesive and the individual playing was accurate.

Music of War and Peace presented by Symphonicity

The second half of the Symphonicity concert on February 21, 2010 was the highlight of the program for this listener. Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) Dona Nobis Pacem (Give us peace) is a cantata for soloist, choir and orchestra. It was written in 1936 between the two world wars when the anguish of the first war came into focus for Vaughan Williams as he saw the political situation moving toward the second war of the twentieth century. Pleading for peace, the heart-rending cry of soprano soloist Amy Cofield Williamson is swept up in increasingly anguished sound created by full orchestra and chorus. As the choral sound fades away the repeated a cappella “Dona nobis pacem” is followed by the sound of distant drums. The sound grows as trumpets join in. It becomes a relentless pounding as the chorus intones “Beat! Beat! Drums!”, a setting of the poem by Walt Whitman with graphic images of ordinary people in church, in school, on the farm being swept into the frenzy of unremitting violence.

The stately pacing, a slow march, offers a sad, pastoral comfort in Reconciliation, set as a lullaby that soothes us as Whitman speaks of attending the wake of the fallen enemy and lightly kissing the corpse's cheek in the casket. The music soothes momentarily but must not be trusted. The soprano once again pleads for peace as we move into the fourth continuous movement with a funeral march. The steady beat of the drums continues, the music matches the graphic imagery of the father and son falling at the same moment in the same battle, described by Whitman in Dirge for Two Veterans. With a double grave awaiting them, the moon that illuminates the scene conjures up the sorrowful phantom of “some mother's large, transparent face.”

Part V, “The Angel of Death,” opens with baritone Steven Kelley singing excerpts of a famous oration to the House of Commons by John Bright during a debate on the Crimean War in 1855. Then the chorus creates a great wave of sound, of humanity grieving for the never ending parade of shifting wars. The sixth and final section, Dona nobis pacem, uses text from the Holy Bible and several scriptures that express humankind's longing for peace, reassuringly sung by the chorus. Entering quietly, the voices assure us of peace, before expanding into a brilliant jubilation. As this fades Ms. Williamson hauntingly floats a warning that we must cling to hope and the possibility of peace and not be lured once again by the glory and intensity of war. “This performance is lovingly dedicated to the memory of two outstanding vocalists, Lisa Relaford Coston and Kathleen Franz, who have sung with Symphonicity in the past” reads the text sheet. The Symphonicity Chorus with 116 voices led by Deborah Carr was joined by Old Dominion University Concert Choir of 46 voices directed by Dr. Nancy Klein.

Conductor David Kunkel gave spoken introductions to the music. The first half, to quote him, was the worst music by each of the two composers, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. The first piece was Overture solennelle 1812, Op. 49, celebrating Russia's successful defense against Napoleon's invasion of Moscow in 1812. As a sure-fire crowd pleaser, the 1812 Overture is frequently played, presenting Tchaikovsky's tremendous gift of melody, drama and effective orchestration. From the dark, brooding opening, a setting of the Russian hymn God Preserve Thy People played by cellos and violas, the piece expands, adding woodwinds to represent the simple purity of Mother Russia. A single snare drum for Napoleon's army is announced by a French horn. There is a fierce clash, the invaders win and we hear bits of La Marseillaise each time. In the third clash the orchestra fills out to a full sound as the Russians take back their homeland and celebration ensues: cannons, church bells and the Czarist national anthem played by trombones, horns and low strings. It was a grand romp and was excitingly played.

Wellington's Victory, Op. 91, “Battle Symphony” by Beethoven is a minor orchestral work commemorating the defeat of the French army under Joseph Bonaparte by the English army, led by Wellington. In 1813 Beethoven conducted the first performance as a fund raiser for wounded soldiers. Musically, opposing regiments approach each other, do battle and the winners celebrate. There is a lot of firepower with great muscularity as required. Snatches of themes from God Save the King and Rule Britannia for the British and for the French what we know today as For He's a Jolly Good Fellow. After 200 years, according to the program notes, the novelty has worn thin. One hearing convinces me that Beethoven does not know when to wrap-up a piece. The battle sections seemed interminable . To add interest to the piece Conductor Kunkel used the Kellam High School Band members, directed by Cameron Baker, as fife and drum corps, the English in a box on the right and the French on the left answering “fire” back and forth. This worked well but don't be seduced – wars create human horror.

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