Virginia Symphony
Terrence Wilson, pianist
Chrysler Hall
February 23, 2013
Review by M.D. Ridge

Terrence Wilson returned to Chrysler Hall February 23rd, playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B Major, with assistant conductor Benjamin Rous, now in his third season with Virginia Symphony.

The first movement, Allegro con brio, contrasted liquid runs with lithe declarative statements—and occasional riffs that sounded quite like an 18th-century drinking society’s anthem “To Anacreon in Heaven,” which became “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Written in 1780, it might well have been heard a few years later—and appropriated—by the young Beethoven.

The slow movement is Beethoven’s longest. It featured a measured pace in the strings against calm piano statements, carefully elaborated upon. Wilson’s pedaling was precise and delicate.

We forget that Beethoven was once young and happy, but it shows in the final movement: a joyful Rondo, in which the piano converses cheerfully with the orchestra. Wilson’s speed and precision were both playful and powerful, and Rous brought out the clarity of the work.

Wilson, who was sporting a natty mohawk haircut, launched into a wild encore based on Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca, with many variations and odd harmonizations, played with speed and flash and power. There was much speculation during the intermission as to the source: Boris Goldovsky? William Kanengiser? — but he’s a guitarist. It might even have been arranged by Wilson himself—but he wasn’t saying.

The program had begun with selections from the Suite from Ovod (The Gadfly), a 1955 film score by Dmitri Shostakovich. The Overture had a big, robust sound, crisply conducted by Rous. Concertmaster Vahn Armstrong gave the familiar melody of the Romance movement a very cantabile sweetness over mellow pizzicato strings. The Galop was exactly what you’d think: fast, light, and full of energy, to a sudden “Whoa” stop. The final movement, Fair, was another speed duel for the woodwinds, underpinned by a steady tambourine rhythm. Through it all, Rous was “dancing” on the podium, bouncing up and down on his toes, precise as always and thoroughly engaged.

The second half of the concert began with Zoltán Kodály’s Variations on a Hungarian Folk Song, “The Peacock.” (Kodaly, a great collector of Hungarian folk songs, introduced his countryman Bela Bartok, to them.) An ancient Hungarian melody was used in a popular song called “Fly, Peacock,” about freedom from servitude, which is why this work was suppressed during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.

The sixteen variations began with brooding bass sounds, swept through delicate sonorities to rhythmic declarations, with beautiful clarinet, then flute, and woodwinds. A pastoral, idyllic reverie featured two flutes and piccolo. Kodály contrasted big, film score-y brass with harp and woodwinds like birdsong, thence to a lovely ending.

Three of Brahms’s beloved Hungarian Dances finished out the evening. Originally written for piano four hands, a few of the 21 dances were orchestrated by Brahms; the rest, by other composers. Dance Number 1, Allegro molto in G minor, had energy and urgency, rising from gypsy rhythms. Number 4 alternated between a throbbing romantic sweep and lively czardas rhythms, with playful rhythms woodwinds. The final dance, Number 5, is the familiar one —startling one moment, limpid the next, and utterly charming.

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

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Virginia Symphony Orchestra
Regent University Theater, Virginia Beach
March 9, 2013
Review by M.D. Ridge

You might not have noticed Tara-Louise Montour before—though the attractive Canadian brunette is a nine-year member of the Virginia Symphony violin section. Born on the Kahnawake reservation in Quebec, Montour is of Mohawk heritage. She’s also North America’s foremost Native American classical violinist, known for commissioning works based on native North American themes for solo violin and orchestra. And that’s how Trickster Coyote, Lightning Elk, by Canadian composer Malcolm Forsythe, came to have its United States premiere with Virginia Symphony.

Elegantly clad in a beaded bustier with wolverine trim, designed by D’Arcy Moses, a Dene from the Northwest Territories, Montour first explained the different native rattles and hide drums that percussionists Rob Cross and Scott Jackson would be using in the concerto, which incorporates traditional chants and dances.

The first movement used the hide drum and shimmering, tricky descending lines in the violin to establish its roots in the Native American rhythms. In the second movement, “Eagle,” the rattles add a spooky sense to high, high violin slides—like an eagle soaring on the whistling winds—against quiet figures in the harp. The movement ends in sudden silence. “Bear,” the third movement, has a more traditional orchestral sound, with tympani, and brass flaring up, big and bold and powerful, melting into woodwind birdsong and high, high violin.

In the final movement, “Seven Arrows,” Montour’s busy, insistent violin evoked flocks of disturbed birds, flying up, swooping down, with strong harp chords underneath. Conductor Benjamin Rous was using little flicks of his fingers to keep taut the tensile strength, while Montour’s violin explored First People sonorities with double stops—wonderful!

Until the last century, there were few orchestral works for English horn, which looks like an oboe, but longer, with a distinctive pear-shaped bell at the bottom. Twentieth-century British composer William Alwyn wrote Autumn Legend in 1954, for English horn and strings. The soloist was the excellent VSO principal oboist George Corbett.

Beginning with figures of low notes, repeated by the strings, the music rose and swirled, evocative of autumn leaves in the wind, like a city park in late October. Corbett’s amazing breath control was notable. Rous brought out the lovely orchestral colors of this tone poem with barely audible basses, then cellos and violas—not splashy, but melancholy, and trailing off . . . There was silence, then a brief, quietly appreciative mmm from the audience before it erupted into applause.

The intimate concert at Regent University’s Center for Performing Arts had begun with Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll—which was attractive, tender, warm, even playful—a pastorale, not exactly what one thinks of in terms of Wagner. Rous brought out the gorgeous woodwind section, with French horn and flute, in overlapping waves of intensifying sounds, to a wonderful ending.

The final work on the program was Mendelssohn’s enchanting—and enchanted—Incidental Music to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. If you know something about the play, the sounds of the scurrying fairies, and Bottom’s honking bray, leap up playfully out of the joyful Overture. The immaculate flute of Debra Wendells Cross soared in the lightly skipping, but intense, Scherzo. The third movement was the Nocturne, with darker colors of French horn and bassoon as well as the higher woodwinds.

The work ends with the grandly joyful Wedding March, hailing the marriage of Titania and Oberon, the fairy king and queen. Its almost too-familiar strains have become a cliché, but on the Regent stage March ninth, it was fresh and exhilarating—a tribute to Rous and the Symphony players.

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

Schubert’s 9th
Virginia Symphony
Harrison Opera House, Norfolk
March 16, 2013
Review by M.D. Ridge

JoAnn Falletta and the Virginia Symphony set a cheerful mood March 16th with the Academic Festival Overture by Brahms. It incorporates the brisk rhythms of student drinking songs and climaxes with Gaudeamus Igitur in grand style with great good humor—most welcome on a dreary, rainy night.

The soloist for the Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor was the principal cellist for the Cleveland Orchestra, Mark Kosower. An expressive player, Kosower brought out all the emotions and colors of a work that taxes every part of the instrument’s range. He began with deep, rich melodies, leaping from low notes to high ones without a hint of smear, and rapidly descending double stops that had a very “vocal” feel. When the cello was silent, pianissimo strings played a delicate dance, with a lovely triple rhythm melody.

In a fast section, Kosower’s fingers moved spiderlike on the fingerboard, then dove into those ravishing low notes, and back down the fingerboard, smoothly, into beautiful high harmonics. It was elegantly spectacular.

His encore was a fiendishly fast and difficult piece that he said he “tortured his students with.” I couldn’t hear the composer’s name, but I’m pretty sure it was Piatti’s Cello Caprice No. 7—an unending series of speedy arpeggios across every string that made everyone in the audience think, “How do you do that?” It was just brilliant. When Kosower had finished, with a bravura flourish—a gentleman behind me breathed reverently, “Good gracious!” I echo the sentiment!

After the intermission, Maestra Falletta introduced two Symphony members who will be retiring at the season’s end: Steve Carlson, retiring after 38 years with the orchestra, 27 of them as principal trumpet; and his wife, principal clarinetist Patti Ferrell Carlson, retiring after 35 years with the orchestra. We’ll miss them—and we wish them well.

The main work of the evening was Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C Major, called “The Great,” apparently because it was longer than another Schubert symphony in the same key. A French horn intoned the opening theme, followed by the strings; then the tempo sharpened, with skipping dotted rhythms. There was strength throughout the movement — delicacy, to be sure, but strength, until the entire orchestra returned to the horn theme.

Oboes and clarinets marked the second movement’s buoyant feel; low strings and woodwinds brought out its richness. One melody was punctuated, so to speak, with charming commas and apostrophes in the violins.

In the third movement, it seemed that one intricate melody was floating from section to section—by turns, plaintive, dynamic, calm and energetic. The powerful final movement encompassed one theme after another, sweeping to a grandly exuberant finale.

In one sense, however, the multiplication of themes may be the reason why this work isn’t played more. The melodies are attractive, and there are a lot of them, but it’s hard to find one or two that reach out and say, “Take me home.” But no matter—Falletta and the orchestra were sublime.

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

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