VSO ROOTS: Folklore and Literary Heritage
Roper Center, Norfolk, March 24, 2017
Review by M.D. RIdge

On March 24, at TCC’s Roper Performing Arts Center in Norfolk, Virginia Symphony resident conductor Benjamin Rous led an energetic and humorous exploration of British Isles orchestral music rooted in folklore.

In preparation for each piece of the program, Rous demonstrated, for instance, how an orchestra can sound like bagpipes and how one gets a glissando on a trombone. He told the story of Tam O’Shanter’s drunken ride (from a poem by Robert Burns, with illustrations on the big screen); he described the folksong roots of one of Benjamin Britten’s last works; and explained how Beethoven—yes, the great German composer—came to set a series of British Isles tunes. There was the usual announcement about not taking pictures and turning off cellphones off—but advising folks to keep them handy so that, during intermission, those so inclined could tweet questions about the music . . . and sometimes anything else.

It’s not what anyone would call stuffy. These “tweet” concerts might be thought of as Peanut Butter and Jam concerts for the technically fluent contingent of high school and college students—which is far from saying they’re no fun for adults, not to mention for newbies dipping a toe into orchestral music. And the good news is that the programs, partnered by Tidewater Community College, will continue next season.

The first work on the program was twentieth-century composer Sir Malcolm Arnold’s Tam O’Shanter Overture, inspired by the tale of Tam getting drunk in the pub, riding home whipping his mare through the stormy night, and happening upon a gathering of witches dancing, with Satan playing the fiddle. When Tam calls out admiration of one witch in a “cutty sark”—a short shift—they chase him up to the safety of a bridge (they can’t cross running water), but one witch is so close she pulls the tail off Tam’s mare!

The orchestra brought out Tam’s drunken reel with tympani, brass and strings, with Rachel Ordaz’s cheerful piccolo above the chaos. There was a brief calm—and then a big surprise ending.

Benjamin Britten has been called the greatest British composer of the twentieth century, for good reason. One of his last compositions was his Suite on English Folk Tunes, with five movements of two tunes each. His main source was the 17th-century text and music of “The English Dancing Master, but Britten turned the tunes into something quite different from the original melodies. Cakes and Ale, the first movement for the orchestra, got a quick and jiggy treatment. The Bitter Withy featured Barbara Chapman’s melodic harp against plucked strings, and at one point, the basses were clapping their bows against the strings. The third movement, The Hankin Booby, had drums, woodwinds and trumpets, with dissonance at the ends of phrases. The fourth movement, Hunt the Squirrel, was very lively and Scottish-sounding, with wonderful strings. In the final movement, Lord Melbourne, Britten turned intensely thoughtful, with George Corbett’s melancholy English horn floating over the strings.

Scotsman George Thomson and his friends collected folk tunes, and Thomson looked for high-end composers to arrange them. Why Beethoven? Because he was wildly admired yet behind in his rent, and Thomson dangled a lot of money in front of him. Beethoven arranged many of these songs for piano trio; not until later did Thomson get poets to write lyrics for the songs. Rous himself re-arranged the pieces for full orchestra to excellent effect.

The soloist was tenor John McGuire, a new member of the Christopher Newport University music faculty. The bright and funny Oh, Sweet Were the Hours celebrated wine—I cannot forget you. Return to Ulster with a text by Sir Walter Scott, had a nice tympani underlay, and McGuire’s robust voice went seamlessly up to his top register—very impressive indeed. Since Graybeards Inform Us That Youth Will Decay was lively, with cool piccolo. The Parting Kiss was a song of farewell to Laura, whose weeping brings the singer to tears. The British Light Dragoons was bright and cheerful, with McGuire’s nifty vocal ornaments.

This review was originally broadcast on WHRO 90.3 FM’s “From the other side of the Footlights.”

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