Virginia Symphony Gives World Premiere of
The Gift of the Magi by Adolphus Hailstork, December 13, 2009

Now that the holiday season has come again it is apparent that my review of The Gift of the Magi is long overdue. We attended the world premiere at Ferguson Center at Christopher Newport University on December 13, 2009 and were very pleased by an exciting new work by beloved local composer Adolphus Hailstork (b.1941). The magi refers to the three wise men from the east in the Christmas story who followed a bright star to the infant Jesus and gave gifts. The American writer O. Henry wrote a short story by this title about a young married couple who had much love but little money for gift-giving and took unwise action. He sold his pocket watch to buy her jeweled combs to decorate her long, luxuriant hair. She sold her hair for money to buy him a chain for his treasured pocket watch.

The story embodies the spirit of the season – generosity in the poorest of circumstances. Carol Thomas Downing, who is founder and artistic director of the Virginia Children's Chorus, pursued the project, both by writing the libretto and commissioning the work from Dr. Hailstork to enrich holiday repertory for children's voices.

The composition combines a suite of four choral arias sung by the children interspersed with dance segments that tell the story, choreographed by Todd Rosenlieb and danced by his company in turn-of-the-nineteenth century costumes with lots of period greenery decorating the set. Before the husband goes to work they show their love in a farewell dance. She then counts her pennies and brushes her hair in a solo dance. There is a dance of shoppers. She enters the fray and at a shop takes down her hair. Over-sized scissors are presented and the story continues to unfold to its conclusion.

The chamber-sized orchestra was led by Conductor JoAnn Falletta. The good feeling music with its remarkable variety of instrumental colors and neoclassical touches is enlivened by traditional harmonies and rhythmic irregularities. The children's melodies showcased their voices in the lovely, gentle, even dreamy music. The entire team brought the community a fine holiday gift. Wouldn't it be exciting if repeating this new piece each holiday season became a local tradition?

For the record, the rest of the program was G.F. Handel's Messiah with professional vocalists and the Virginia Symphony Chorus but the performance failed to engage my enthusiasm like the Symphonicity community Messiah Sing-Along did ten days later.


Review
VIRGINIA SYMPHONY
January 22, 2011 Chrysler Hall
by M.D. Ridge

Samuel Barber’s intense, melodic First Symphony, Op. 9, took up the first half of Virginia Symphony’s first program of the New Year, January 22 at Chrysler Hall. Its single movement is divided into several subsections, giving the feel of a multi-movement work, which began with great sweeping strokes. One lovely section showed the orchestra’s violas to wonderful advantage. (One doesn’t usually get to hear the violas highlighted in a concerto, especially with such beautiful tone.) Much of the writing requires great instrumental agility from section after section whose rhythmic intensity grew more and more challenging. In the slow section, a calmly sensuous oboe solo sang a hymn-like melody over sonorous strings in a romantic sweep of sound.

Beforehand, Maestro JoAnn Falletta had spent a few minutes outlining the highlights of the upcoming 2011-2012 season, most notably that Gil Shaham will play the Barber Violin Concerto, and the orchestra will perform a performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony — the only Mahler symphony it hasn’t yet done.

But what everyone had come to hear was Carl Orff’s exhilarating Carmina Burana, The driving energy of Orff’s tricky, changing rhythms and invigorating setting of Latin, German and Old French texts riveted the audience from the first “O Fortuna” to its final reprise.

Although the original thirteenth-century texts were found in a monastery, they are secular texts that mourn fortune’s whims, the joys of spring, the pleasures of the tavern — and love. Keith Phares brought a dark, impassioned baritone to “Omnia sol temperat”, singing of love in spring, and its tortures. Later, in the tavern section, Phares invested the character of a corrupt abbot with comic difficulty, holding on to the rails of the conductor’s platform while singing passionate high notes with effortless agility. Tenor Scott Williamson soared into the falsetto range of “Olim lacus culeram,” as a once-beautiful swan being roasted on a spit to be served for dinner. Again, the contrast between beautiful singing and raucous humor, underscored by braying brass and comic woodwinds, was masterfully entertaining.

Soprano soloist Amy Cofield Williamson demonstrated a high, sustained diminuendo held for measure after measure with astonishing breath control and a nice feel for the expression and gesture that would bring out a character without milking it.

The Virginia Symphony Chorus, directed by Robert Shoup, and the Virginia Children’s Chorus navigated the challenging rhythms and changing patterns, languages and moods with gusto and wonderfully precise diction, often at breakneck speed. Alas, in a couple of exposed sections, the sopranos were warbly, under the note, unfocused, with ragged entrances; this was particularly unfortunate in contrast to the men’s voices, which were full, rich and focused. Top marks to the attractive tone of the Children’s Chorus singers, who sang their parts from memory!

The orchestra supported the singers with their own comic touches and bravura statements, even swaying with great hilarity. Orff’s orchestration kept six percussionists on the hop!

Audience members hardly let the last note die out before leaping to their feet, cheering and clapping with energy equal to the singers and orchestra. The biggest roar of applause was for the Children’s Chorus. The ovation kept on for several minutes, with renewed cheering for the orchestra, the choral directors, the choruses themselves. Big choral works don’t usually come with encores, but the audience would have been delirious to hear one!


AMADEUS Review
Friday, May 20, 2011
Chrysler Hall, Norfolk
by M.D. Ridge

An outstanding production of Amadeus, which combined Peter Shaffer’s Tony- and Oscar-winning play and Mozart’s extraordinary musical genius, enraptured a full house at Chrysler Hall May 20. Joining forces were the actors of the Chautauqua Theater Company, instrumentalists and singers of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, and a stunning group of vocal soloists.

But numbers alone do not make an evening this spectacular. First, it takes a strong story line, which Shaffer’s play has in abundance: the court musician Salieri, who has vowed to put his music in God’s service, is faced with the blinding genius God has given the bumptious, vulgar Mozart. Bitterly envious, Salieri sets out to destroy Mozart, and succeeds so deftly that the younger composer believes Salieri to be his true friend to the last. Even so, Salieri is the one person who recognizes Mozart’s gift and cherishes it even as he tries to deny it.

Ray Dooley brought out both the calculated evil of Salieri’s machinations and his internal war between loathing for a giggling twit and awe at the beauty of his rival’s music. The great irony is that Salieri, given ample opportunity, cannot bring himself to destroy the extraordinary music — just its composer. (Salieri actually was quite a good composer — not on Mozart’s level, but no one could have been.)

As the immature, spendthrift, foulmouthed, cocksure young genius, Blake Segal had energy to spare, bounding around as if on springs, gleefully mounting his wife underneath the harpsichord — a brilliant kid among stodgy but ambitious grownups, which made all the more poignant his decline in health and hope. There was an amusing moment when he stood behind Falletta, “directing” the orchestra — with quite different gestures.

Rachel Spencer Hewitt was the giddy but staunchly faithful Constanze; Craig Wesley Divino and Paul Mullens switched among variety of roles; and Philip Goodwin was perfect as the clueless emperor of “Too many notes — well, there you have it” fame.

Had this production of Amadeus been solely a play, it would have impressed its audience with Vivienne Benesch’s excellent direction and the fine acting of its cast. But the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, under the masterful baton of JoAnn Falletta, were more than equal partners, bringing to richly vibrant life the music being talked about by the characters.

The instrumentalists and chorus began by murmuring insistently, their hubbub turning into reiterations of “Salieri! Salieri!” When in the first act, Salieri described hearing Mozart’s music — the entrance of a soaring oboe, “and then the clarinet takes it away” — that music sprang up, instantly engaging the audience in what had spoken so eloquently to Salieri’s ear. And what music! — not mere snapshots but carefully chosen arias, choruses and instrumental marvels brilliantly performed, yet interwoven seamlessly with the onstage action, as when the Dies Irae underscored Salieri’s fateful challenge to God. Some of the play’s dialog had been skillfully redacted in order to move the plot smartly along and allow for the music to play its part fully.

The Symphony Chorus was seated behind the orchestra; when they rose to sing the great Kyrie, it was almost a startling surprise. The players themselves were in such close quarters that one could readily see why the strings needed to upbow at the same time, else carnage might have ensued.)

The sextet of soloists was equally remarkable, most notably Scott Williamson (Tamino’s impassioned aria), Amy Cofield Williamson’s impeccable brilliance and the terrific young bass, Liam Moran, who sang with richness and easy authority.

The production’s creative stage design included a raised, raked wooden platform with attractive parquet inlay, on which the story took place. A harpsichord upstage and a small table and chair downstage were all that was needed. On either side of the stage were short racks of costumes and wigs, to be donned by the actors as part of the action. The costumes were not only appropriate but moved well, not always an easy accomplishment. The effective lighting included an ornate chandelier high above the stage and, behind the orchestra, “window” panels that changed color, subtly underscoring the moods in the music and the play.

In this age when volume is pumped up to the point of pain, it should be noted that the unobtrusively miked singers and actors sounded clear, not deafening. That is extraordinarily rare, and reflects the care taken with every aspect of this production.

Virginia Arts Festival has its cast-of-thousands Tattoo, of course, but perhaps more importantly, the festival has become the year’s go-to deal for what Ed Sullivan used to call “a rilly big shew.” Last year’s brilliant production of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass was the most exciting music/theatre piece I have seen in this area, but I’ve only been here since 1963. This year’s Amadeus is right up there in the wow! Standings.

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