Virginia Symphony
Natasha Paremski, pianist
Chrysler Hall
February 25, 2012
Review by M.D. Ridge

We’ve all heard snippets of Edvard Grieg’s Concerto in A minor, Opus 16— in the score for the movie The Seventh Veil, in commercials for Nike and Range Rover, and even in the strange television series Twin Peaks. But nothing beats hearing it live, played by a superb young pianist, as was the case February 25th at Chrysler Hall.

Natasha Paremski is not yet a household name, but she’s very likely to become one as familiar as the music she played Saturday night.

Performing from memory, Paremski had it all, from crashing power to pianissimo nuance. Her arms and hands were very fluid and relaxed, a sign of excellent technical training. (Hers began in Moscow, where she was born 24 years ago, Immigrating with her family to the United States in 1995.)

The melodic, richly romantic work—Grieg’s only concerto—was in formidably capable hands. Paremski intently navigated trickling rills of notes that swelled to great cascades, delicate Norwegian folk motifs, huge clusters of commanding chords, great sweeping melodies — it was awesome. JoAnn Falletta led the Virginia Symphony orchestra in perfect balance with the young soloist, bringing out the rich cellos and basses of the first movement, the beautiful flute theme, like the first glimpse of spring, and the incisive increase in intensity at the end of the third movement. Petremski’s encore, a rarely performed Etude-Tableau by Rachmaninoff, was thoughtful, powerful, pensive and emphatic, ringing all the emotional changes with ease.

The Chrysler’s drop-down screens and rear projectors are meant to make a soloist more visible. They were not working properly, appearing horribly—and distractingly—over-exposed, like some weird Warhol video of a yellow ghost. Fortunately they were turned off during the second movement.

Good. Keep them off.

The evening’s opener was the Overture to Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s comic opera Maskarade, a joyful, perky piece with everything going at once. It made me want to see the opera sometime!

After all the fireworks in the first half, you might think the second half would be anticlimactic.

Not so.

The great Symphony No. 5 in B-flat, by Sergei Prokofiev, got a reading that brought out all its sonorous magnificence. Written in 1944 and premiered in Moscow in 1945, it began with low, portentous rumblings that brought thunderclouds to mind—and kept the timpanist on the hop. The second movement had more of the earlier Prokofiev—light and airy, with urgent skirls of woodwinds and subtle percussion, before suddenly turning warlike. The third movement tapered down, down, down to its finish—not easy to do with a large orchestra— and Falletta had its measure completely. The clarinet theme in the final movement recalled the gorgeous melodies of the composer’s earlier Romeo and Juliet. The percussion section was crisply intent.

Think what was happening in Russia—and Europe—in 1944, and marvel at how Prokofiev managed to capture the final days of the war with affirmation — even joy.

It was quite an evening!

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

Virginia Symphony
William Wolfram, pianist
Chrysler Hall
April 14, 2012
Review by MD Ridge

To close their regular season, Virginia Symphony, under the baton of JoAnn Falletta, and pianist William Wolfram flat-out wowed the Chrysler Hall Audience April 14 with a stunning performance of Tchaikovsky’s Concerto No. 2 in G major.

The tall, burly (and okay, handsome) Wolfram, who looks as though in a former life he might have been a football player, was breathtaking in both bravura statements and simpler, lyrical melody. In the first movement, he displayed a powerful combination of declarative emphasis and skeins of notes that rippled like water in wind.

In the second movement, concertmaster Vahn Armstrong had a beautiful violin melody reminiscent of the “Ave Maria”; Wolfram responded in thoughtful, pensive phrases answered in turn by Armstrong and the strings. Violin, piano and Michael Daniels’s singing cello formed a striking trio in that slow movement, going very deep and dark. The final movement was bright and brilliant, with crisp playing and perfect articulation, all at great speed. It was a spectacular performance.

The evening had begun with Les Chants De La Mer (Sea Songs) by Philippe Gaubert, a younger contemporary of Ravel and Debussy. The first movement illustrated the sea’s changing colors with murmuring cellos, basses and woodwinds, while the violins had the melody. In the Scherzo movement, there were harp glissandos and cheerful strings and woodwinds, with ripples of sound like sunlight glancing on the waves below a cliff. The French horns began the third movement, with a trumpet melody played by David Vonderheide, and great sweetness in the strings. Falletta brought out the nicely contrasting dynamics. It was all very Impressionist and very lovely.

The Divertimento from Le Baiser de la fée (The Fairy’s Kiss) was a four-movement set of highlights from the ballet by Igor Stravinsky, based loosely on Hans Christian Andersen’s story, “The Ice Maiden.” Stravinsky based his ballet on little-known themes by Tchaikovsky, reinterpreting them for the ballet. In the mind’s eye, one could see the dancers in the scurrying woodwinds and swelling tempos, crisp rhythm and a dreamy little waltz. The third movement in particular had lovely ensemble playing, and Falletta brought out all the emotional colors. The final movement, “Pas de Deux,” featured Debra Cross’s flute and Patti Carlson’s clarinet, both gorgeous. The audience responded with well-deserved shouts of “Bravo! Bravo!”

At the final concert of the season, it has become a Virginia Symphony custom to honor milestones of long service to the orchestra. Bassist Jeremy Barth and bassoonist Laura Leisring have served for five years; violinist Seiko Syverson has been with the orchestra for 15 years. For quarter of a century, symphony audiences have heard cellist Nancy Keevan, violinist Linda Hurwitz, principal oboist Sherie Lake Aguirre, percussionist Tim Bishop, and clarinetist Scott Boyer. It’s been 30 years for hornist Wilford Holcombe, and also for Robert Cross, principal percussionist extraordinaire, and executive and artistic director of the fabulous Virginia Arts Festival.

For principal timpanist John Lindberg, it’s been an astonishing 46 years—that’s half the symphony’s 92-year history. Lindberg is retiring, having premiered two major works. He has also been an active labor leader, and will continue to teach at the College of William and Mary. Trombonist Scott McElroy reminisced about how, at his first performance with the symphony 23 years ago, it was Lindberg who welcomed him. Maestra Falletta said, simply, “He has spoiled me for other timpanists.”

Godspeed, Mr. Lindberg. May you have a happy and fulfilling retirement!

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

Virginia Symphony
Jon Kimura Parker, piano
Chrysler Hall
September 8, 2012
Review by M.D. Ridge

A saying attributed to many sources is: writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Well, why not dance about architecture? For that matter, why not write music about paintings, as did two of the composers featured in Virginia Symphony’s opening concert of the 2012-2013 season.

The concert at Chrysler Hall September 8 began with Paul Hindemith’s symphony, Mathis der Maler, which preceded his opera of the same name about the 16th-century German painter Mathis Grünewald. The symphony has three gorgeous movements based on Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece. The first, “Angelic Chorus,” began with soft trombones, then flitting strings that brought to mind angels with their instruments, darting like moths to entertain the infant Jesus. The trombones returned—strong and mellow, but not brash.

In the second movement, “Entombment,” Debra Wendells Cross’s silvery flute shone with hushed and poignant sounds. The third movement, “The Temptation of St. Anthony,” pictured a saint assailed by demons, in an overwhelming attack on the senses punctuated by single instrument voices and overwhelmed again. Eerie high harmonics in the violins continued to disturb as other sections played—notably a rich, melodic viola section. Whirling strings and woodwinds and a big brass statement brought the work to a vigorous end, affirming the power of the painter’s art.

Next came Canadian pianist Jon Kimura Parker playing Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. After a brief introduction, Rachmaninoff states the original theme, from Paganini’s 24th Violin Caprice; the 24 variations then turn the theme upside down, backwards and inside out, with equally striking variations in tempo and keys. Parker’s execution was dazzling and intense, from quick lightness to crashing chords, from slow, solemn bass chords to the lushly romantic, film score-ish 18th variation, and ended, surprisingly, with what Parker has called “a wink. . . and a question mark.” Under JoAnn Falletta’s crisp baton, the orchestra was fully engaged in the work’s demands.

Parker exclaimed, “It is so much fun to play that piece!—and to play it with such extraordinary musicians!” His encore was what he called “our high school theme”: the driving rhythm of Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.” Many of the audience could have sung along with him, and I could just make out harpist Barbara Chapman smiling with delight.

Back to paintings: the second half featured Modest Moussorgsky’s wonderfully familiar Pictures at an Exhibition, paired with all-too-brief glimpses of paintings and sketches by the artist Viktor Hartmann on the overhead screens. (Fortunately, you can google them and view them at your leisure.) Hartmann, who died young, was a friend of Moussorgsky; his work was exhibited the year after his death.

Many arrangers have tackled the original solo piano work, but Ravel’s masterful arrangement seems to have become the gold standard for orchestra. There are 10 musical pictures in different keys and meters in the collection, which began with a “Promenade” in an odd mixed meter, perhaps to depict the composer wandering through a gallery. The lurching movements of “Gnomus” suggested Hartmann’s lost design for a nutcracker. The placid “Promenade” recurred; then came “The Old Castle,” with sensuous woodwinds floating on the air. The light, cheerful “Tuileries” recalled children playing in the Parisian gardens. The dark, ponderous march of “Bydlo” evoked a dray drawn by oxen; it got quieter and quieter. . .

“The Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells” was utterly charming — light, scurrying, onomatopoetic, and richly comic, conducted with little flicks of Falletta’s fingers. The portrayal of “Samuel Goldenburg and Schmuyle” was marked by frenetic trumpet, razzy and disturbing. The bright scherzo of “Limoges” led into the somber “Catacombs,” a self-portrait of the artist visiting the Paris catacombs. The ninth picture, “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs,” incorporated Russian legends of the grotesque witch Baba Yaga, with overtones of fairytale weirdness in the forest.

The grand finale, “The Great Gate at Kiev,” brings down the house every time. Hartmann’s design for a huge gate in ancient Russian style was to commemorate the Tsar’s escape from an assassination attempt; it was never built, possibly because the Tsar did not wish to be reminded. But oh, what music! Its great triumphal pealing of bells began in the strings, of all places, and as the chimes tolled, the sound grew and grew: grand music, on a grand scale, grandly played by a crackerjack orchestra — who could possibly ask for anything more?

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

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