Virginia Symphony Orchestra with Edgar Meyer, double bass
Chrysler Hall, October 27, 2012

As superstorm Sandy was making its way up the coast October 27, Virginia Symphony presented a splendid concert at Chrysler Hall that began with “The Chairman Dances,” an intriguing orchestral piece by minimalist composer John Adams. It was written for, but not included in the third act of his opera Nixon in China. The twelve-minute piece uses what conductor JoAnn Falletta called “the hypnotic power of repetition” to evoke Mao Tse-tung’s wife crashing a reception held for the visiting President; she and the chairman dance a foxtrot together, and the piece ends with scratchy gramophone sounds.

In the quarter-century since the work was first presented, audiences have become more accustomed to its odd percussion accents, changing two-note patterns and unsettling dance rhythms, which have become an accepted part of modern orchestral language. Falletta, a wonderful proponent of “new” music, was engaged and energetic, bringing out the nuances of Adams’s music from sweeping sonic attack to tender rhythms, and back.

The eclectic double bassist superstar Edgar Meyer looked rather like actor Tom Hanks, with his rolled-up, crisp white shirtsleeves, suspenders, snazzy bow tie and everyman persona. He began with the Concerto No 2 in B minor for Double Bass and Orchestra by Giovanni Bottesini, another double bass virtuoso, but of the 19th century. It takes the measure of the instrument from growling lowest notes to high harmonics. In the second movement, the strings are quietly intense while the bass has the melody in a thoughtful, pensive reverie — delicate, even — ending on pianissimo high notes. (Remember, this was a double bass we were listening to!

Meyer shifted position, leaning into the instrument, balancing it against his left knee. It takes a lot of effort to get sufficient solo sound out of so deep-voiced an instrument, even discreetly abetted by a microphone low in front of it.) Rippling cadenzas from high to low, big leaps, and more pianissimo high harmonics led into the sprightly tempo of the ending.

Meyer’s own Double Bass Concerto No. 3 had its world premiere a year ago; he made revisions before this performance, its Virginia premiere. Weird woodwinds and violas, like a dissonant breeze, led into the bass’s wonderful rhythms and syncopation. A fast, light, buzzy section had bassoon singing in the background and quick skirls of flute, while the strings produced very “American fiddle” sounds.

Meyer was using the entire fingerboard, practically down to the bridge, to get the impossibly high sounds he wanted. Bassoon and clarinet sounded like autumn winds, lifting leaves in a vagrant breeze and letting them fall. Meyer’s harmonic language reflected world influences, as he segued into a livelier rhythm— think “Flight of the Bumblebee” meets the Silk Road guys and invites John Adams along for a drink. Eerie dissonances in the second violins, violas and woodwinds led into a sudden, almost abrupt ending.

Meyer’s encore, “Pickles,” was played without a bow — plucked, with his left hand all over the fingerboard with jazzy virtuosity. Faces in the orchestra — yes, the bass players, too — were just beaming.

The second half of the concert featured the powerful Symphony No. 7 in D minor by Antonín Dvořák—not as familiar as the composer’s New World Symphony, but definitely rewarding. Conductor JoAnn Falletta burnished each movement. The dramatic opening became spring-like before triple trumpet calls and full brass brought things to a climax. The slow, melodic, plaintive second movement seemed balletic, with lush French horns and woodwinds. The cross-rhythms of a fiery Bohemian dance swept the third movement along in dramatic fashion (the timpanist got a workout). The first three notes of the final movement may have been where Richard Rodgers got the idea for “Bali Hai”— that brilliant octave leap, falling back to a raised seventh. A vigorous march gave way to a lovely, pastoral Slavic melody before returning to the defiant march.

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

Virginia Symphony Orchestra
Chrysler Hall, November 17, 2012

On November 17th, the Grand Illumination downtown drew huge crowds—good for the city, but creating a gigantic parking problem for those trying to get to Virginia Symphony. Getting there may not have been half the fun, but it was worth the effort.

Associate Conductor Benjamin Rous led the orchestra for an interesting program unified by rhythm: two works by 20th-century Spanish composers and, in the second half, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.

Joaquin Turina was a native of the city of Seville — yes, Virginia, where the famous operatic barber plied his trade. The three movements of Turina’s Sinfonia sevillana describe scenes from the city and its river, using exotic Andalusian rhythms and flamenco dances. The music of the first movement was evocative of Spanish filigree, with nice percussive accents. In the second, Amanda Armstrong, who was concertmaster for the performance, was in excellent form, with a high, sweet tone. George Corbett’s gorgeous English horn made listeners nostalgic for a place they’d never experienced. The final movement was very rhythmic, very Spanish, with conductor Rous bouncing on the podium.

Principal flutist Debra Wendells Cross was the soloist for the Fantasía para un gentilhombre (Fantasy for a Gentleman). The title may refer to the immortal guitarist Andres Segovia, for whom Joaquín Rodrigo composed the work in 1954, as a neoclassical suite, with four movements based on dances by 17th-century guitarist Gaspar Sanz, who represented Spain’s Golden Age. Segovia played the Fantasía at its 1958 premiere in San Francisco. When the renowned flutist James Galway asked the composer’s permission to arrange the work for flute and orchestra, Rodrigo agreed—not surprisingly.

Clad in a strikingly draped dark red gown, Cross displayed silvery sweetness of tone even in the highest ranges; and her lower range was clear and warm. The harmonic language of the Fantasía is utterly lovely, lush, then spare, languorously sexy, and this version is absolutely studded with difficult virtuosic displays that rippled smoothly under Cross’s flying fingers. The final movement, with its dialog between flute and orchestra, its jaunty, very Spanish alternation between 6/8 and ¾ rhythms, and its cheerful cuckoo calls, was just terrific.

The second half of the program was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Major; you know it’s Beethoven from the very first measures, even though it begins with a brief, fairly quiet introduction before the energy builds to its fullest. Rous was erect and alert and athletic — not the most fluid conducting I’ve ever seen, but extremely clear and engaged. His baton was whipping around in circles— but it worked.

The insistent rhythms of the second movement were light and sinewy, with lovely cellos and violas—unusually quiet (for Beethoven) but allowing for impressively mounting intensity. (You may have recognized this in the film, The King’s Speech, underscoring the new king’s radio address announcing Britain’s entrance into World War Two.)

The opening of the third movement, the scherzo, was momentarily ragged but quickly came together. For its brightness and vitality, Rous was bouncing on his toes, yet careful to draw out individual elements. The vigorous finale rose and fell back, rose and fell back, jubilantly attacking again and again.

As I was leaving, I overheard a group of gentlemen talking about the merits of various conductors whom they had heard conduct Beethoven’s 7th. One said, “Von Karajan made music; Bernstein was music.”

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

Songs for a Dreamer, A Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Virginia Symphony Orchestra, Benjamin Rous, Conductor; Lorraine Bell, soprano; Stephanie Sanders, saxophone; Norfolk State University Vocal Jazz Ensemble
Calvary Revival Church, January 13, 2013
Review by John Campbell

We gathered in a modern, large sanctuary of the mega church Calvary United Revival for the second collaborative concert of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra with the city of Norfolk’s Neighbors Building Neighborhoods/Harmony Project.

Retaining the format of the first year’s program on January 15, 2012, the VSO, conducted by the kinetic Associate Conductor Benjamin Rous, played the Star Spangled Banner followed by the invocation by Bishop B. Courtney McBath, Senior pastor of Calvary Revival Church. Accompanied by the orchestra, the audience sang Lift Every Voice and Sing with music by J.(John) Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954) and text with his brother James Weldon Johnson in a symphonic arrangement by William Grant Still (1895-1978). Words were projected on the three screens across the shallow, wide stage. A welcome from Bishop McBath and greetings from Norfolk Mayor Paul D. Fraim were followed by a video, “Find Your Reason” promoting community outreach of the VSO.

The opening events completed, we then we got down to the nitty-gritty of our gathering, hearing the VSO accompanying the glorious singing of the Norfolk State University Vocal Jazz Ensemble singing Amazing Grace. Twenty voices strong, the ensemble is directed by Frank T. Elliott. In an arrangement by Jack Schrader with a tame opening the sound built layer-on-layer with a strong beat to a jazz influenced full choral exultation. The second verse began with an enfolding, intimate energy and came to a quiet ending.

After each musical selection there was a reading by local ministers of statements made by Dr. King. For the harmony project the roster of cooperating ministers of the historically African-American churches has grown from six to eight this year. The additions are Bishop McBath of this venue and Rev. Lawrence Willis, Sr., pastor of Carver Memorial Presbyterian Church, Newport News. The continuing members are First Baptist Church, Bute Street, Rev. Dr. Robert Murray (his representative); Bank Street Memorial Baptist Church, Rev. Dr. Joseph P. Lee, Jr.; Second Calvary Baptist Church, Rev. Dr. Geoffrey V. Guns; Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Temple, Rev. Dr. Jerome A. Barber; St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church, Bishop Curtis E. Edmonds; and First Baptist Church-Denbigh, Rev. Ivan T. Harris.

Next came a symphonic essay by Australian pianist and composer Percy Grainger (1882-1961). He studied music in Melbourne and Germany and as a concert pianist traveled widely and was befriended by Grieg. Before becoming a U.S. citizen in 1918 he wrote Irish Tune from County Derry (1913) based on the folk tune Danny Boy. The orchestra’s playing tore at your heart strings.

After another reading of Dr. King’s words the NSU Vocal Jazz Ensemble returned and with the orchestra performed two sections of Gospel Mass by Robert Ray (b. 1946). In the late 1970s Mr. Ray, a choral director, met a Father Clarence Rivers who sparked the idea of a mass incorporating elements of Gospel music into the Catholic liturgy. The results were displayed in Acclamation and later, after the presentation of the Dreamer Award to the family of the outstanding state senator Yvonne Miller who died in 2012, they sang the Gloria. It was a Halleluiah experience for the audience as the Vocal Ensemble “praised the Lord” with layered repeats of these words in an exciting display of skill and spirit.

The orchestra added to our education and enjoyment when they played Danse Negre by African-English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor born in London in 1875 to an English mother and an African father from Sierra Leone. Like Barack Obama, he was raised by his white mother after his father returned to Africa to pursue the medical career denied him in England. He sang in his church choir from age ten and entered the Royal College of Music in London at fifteen as a violin student. His first composition, Te Deum, was written that year and his anthem In Thee, O Lord was published the following year. In the next year four more pieces were published and there were frequent public performances of this and his other compositions. He was befriended by Edward Elgar and given a commission for Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast which became England’s most popular choral-orchestral work for the next ten years.

Coleridge-Taylor promoted African melodies in his future compositions, became a professor at Trinity College, London and toured the United States several times. He married and had two children who grew up to have successful musical careers. Harry T. Burleigh often sang for him and he was an inspiration to serious black musicians and composers. His mission in life was to help establish the dignity of black men in an often hostile white world. He demonstrated that black composers were equal to the task of classical composition. He died of pneumonia in 1912 at age thirty-seven.

It was wonderful to hear the orchestral setting of the last two of the four songs from Adolphus Hailstork’s Songs of Love and Justice, Decision and Love, clearly sung by soprano Lorraine McFadden Bell. The text, from speeches and sermons by Dr. King, includes these words: “Every man must decide if he will walk in the light…in the light of creative altruism or the darkness of destructive selfishness” and “only love is capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.” Dr. Hailstork’s music is both emotionally seductive and confrontational. Ms. Bell and the symphony clearly got his point across.

Next each pastor read by turn a few lines from the poem Standing Tall by Dr. James McKenzie describing the achievements of Dr. King. For the closing piece saxophonist Stephanie K. Sanders was soloist with the orchestra in the finale MLK section of Three Black Kings by Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (1899-1974). Ms. Sanders' performance was spectacular. The audience was so moved that I was concerned that their verbal responses and clapping would obscure the music. She got a spontaneous standing ovation, capping a grand celebration.

Back to VSO 8