Side by Side - Three Conductors, Three Composers
and an Orchestra of 140
Governor’s School for the Arts Orchestra with East Carolina University Symphony Orchestra
Sandler Center, Virginia Beach, November 18, 2012
An evening with the GSA Orchestra is always an exciting musical experience and the collaboration with East Carolina Symphony added another dimension. The concert was a joint venture of the East Carolina University Symphony Orchestra and the Governor’s School for the Arts Orchestra.
Jorge Richter of East Carolina University conducted the first piece, Scenes and Dances from “El Sombrero de tres picos” (1919). The Three Cornered Hat, composed by Manuel de Falla (1876-1946), began life as a ballet score. Falla had discovered his rich heritage of Spanish music and delved deeply into the Spanish psyche and encapsulated its essence in this work. We heard Falla’s arrangement of two orchestral suites from his original ballet score with their familiar big Spanish sound.
A march-like opening of drums and trumpets was soon joined by strings and flutes. The combined string sections of two orchestras made a gorgeous, rich sound and the solo oboe passages stood out dramatically. Jonathan Spence, the ECU concert master, a former GSA student, was outstanding and confident in his leadership role. Harpist Barbara Chapman of the Virginia Symphony played an essential role in the orchestral sound.
After intermission a somewhat slimmed-down orchestra played Atmospheres by Hungarian composer György Ligeti (1923-2006). In 1961 when the piece was written, Ligeti was living in Vienna, Austria. He had escaped from Hungary when the 1956 uprising was brutally putdown by the Soviets. This Tidewater premier was led by GSA Instrumental Music Artistic Director Stephen Coxe who has brought to local audiences much twentieth-century music.
The opening was strange, even ethereal. Waves of sound emerged, overwhelmed and then subsided. A muted tuba with massed cellos and basses created the sound of the oppressed. Was it the cries of the tortured or the breath of a bee hive? Alex Ross, in his book The Rest is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century, describes it thus: “The opening chord has fifty-nine notes spread over five and a half octaves; the effect is mysterious rather than assaultive, a seductive threshold to an ambient world.” He continues, “half familiar entities …are glimpsed in the sonic haze, dark cedes to light.” Near the end there is a roar of strings strummed inside the grand piano like a sudden downpour of rain on a metal roof.
For the final selection GSA Instrumental Music Chair Jeffrey Phelps stepped up onto the podium and conducted an early 20th century landmark: La Valse (1920) by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). The full orchestra with two harpists created a low rumble of strings, heavy with cellos and basses, as the ground for the coloristic fragments of various instrumental timbres. It was as if a musical wind was moving through the hall. Now and then there was the hint of a Viennese waltz. The waltz now grows stronger, boisterous, loud and intimidating. It changes, still a waltz but now it is sedate and slightly out of tune, distracted by spare phrases. The waltz struggles to reorganize. A giant boom of intense sound is followed by a cabaret pastiche of a waltz overwhelmed by a tidal wave of sound. There is a struggle, over and over again the waltz tries again to begin but cannot regain the energy. The music becomes frantically fast as if it is about to go over a physical cliff, hesitates, rushes about with blaring brass and thunderous percussion as the whole sonically unravels.
Afterward in conversation Mr. Phelps commented to us that this was the third time through for the two orchestras together and their best performance. It was a great pleasure for us.
Hansel and Gretel by Englebert Humperdinck
Governor’s School for the Arts
Old Dominion University Theater
December 15, 2012
Review by John Campbell
The witch stole the show in this warm, happy production of Hansel and Gretel full of fun and sparkle by the Governor’s School for the Arts. The production ran December 14 – 16 and we saw the Saturday, December 15th show. Sung in English and with a different cast each performance, the three-performance run gave twenty-one students stage time to hone their theatrical and singing skills. This also allowed the principals to be part of the chorus in other performances. It was a fine gift to the community.
The overture opens sounding like a hymn in its sweetness only to reflect thornier parts of the opera later. Vocal Music Department Chair Alan Fischer, the conductor/director, moved the setting from a German forest to the American West around the time of Little House on the Prairie. The witch was Miss Kitty Sugarmouth inspired by the vintage TV show Gunsmoke and her gingerbread house looked like a saloon, a place good children do not go. The witch with her red wig with hair piled high and full and heavily made-up face and enhanced cleavage and a suggestive walk and attitude had the audience in stitches.
The moral of the story seems to be that there are worse things than not having enough to eat – being eaten, for instance. Hansel, usually played by a female acting as a boy (a pants role), was sung by Victoria Buckman who was most convincing in the role. His sister Gretel was Kaylan Calderon. The children have been left at home with chores to do but end-up dancing and playing and accidentally breaking a pitcher of milk, the only food they have for supper. When Mother (Matré Grant) comes home she is furious and sends them out to pick wild strawberries.
Father (Bradley Fielding) returns in a good mood, having sold all the handmade brooms and having bought food. He’s not concerned about the pitcher but is upset to learn that the children have gone to the Western Woods because he knows that a witch who eats children lives there. The parents leave to search for the children.
Meanwhile Hansel and Gretel have found and picked strawberries but Gretel is distracted by all the flowers there and makes a garland for her brother but he rejects the flowers at first, then places them on his sister’s head. When they realize that they are lost and tired they get scared and imagine all sorts of frightful things. The Sandman, here an old gray-bearded prospector played by Erin McFadden in another pants role, appears and makes them sleepy.
Then comes the most wonderful scene of the opera. After their evening prayers the children fall asleep to that sweet music from the overture. Accompanied by this best-known tune of the opera, fourteen angels come to shield them from harm. In white costumes a troop of ballerinas delicately dance a beautiful, coordinated ballet, with many of the dancers on toe. The flowing choreography, giving an illusion of floating, was by Joni Petre-Scholz of the GSA dance department. The children are so well concealed by the angels that the parents pass by on their search without seeing them.
Kira Jersild as the Dew Fairy comes to wake the children who have dreamed of being protected by angels. They are very relaxed when they discover Miss Kitty’s Sweet Shop, a gingerbread house with fences of gingerbread boys and icing like snow billows over the roof. They knock and then nibble and what seem to be candy-striped walls have two rolling eyeball windows. They are definitely being watched!
Miss Kitty, the witch (Sarah Yaden), enchants the children and takes time out for a wild broom-ride and gets fooled by the observant and clever children who push her into her own oven. Two cowpokes appear from time to time moving the story along and adding to the western setting. Seems the cowpokes were also under the witch’s spell. All the children who have been enchanted by the witch appear and sing a marvelous chorus thanking Hansel and Gretel for freeing them. The parents stumble onto the celebration and add their joy of finding their children alive and well.
It is a holiday miracle for sure. Nineteen players of the GSA orchestra with GSA Choral Director Stephen A. Cook at the keyboard furnished the music. Mr. Cook, Shelly Milam and Michael Regan prepared the singers in their roles. Costumes looked authentically Old West and were by Rebecka Pileckas; makeup was by Georgianna Eberhard and Emmy Tracy was stage manager and prop master. The production was a delightful holiday offering. As old Santa might say: Merry Christmas to all and to all a very good night.
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