GSA Orchestra Plays Beethoven, Lutoslawski, Berlioz
Roper Performing Arts Center, Norfolk, January 6, 2017,
Review by John Campbell

The weather forecast was dire—up to 18 inches of snow and blustery, cold wind, but only after 10 P.M. The Saturday, January 7 performance and auditions had been canceled and the Saturday ticket-holders were encouraged to come to this one. It was a good house but not packed as family and friends turned-out to hear the enthusiastic, well-trained high school orchestra in a one-hour program, sans intermission.

No conductor appeared and Ludwig van Beethoven's (1770-1827) Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93 (1812) opened with the charm of a classical period piece (think Haydn, Mozart, etc.). This symphony has been characterized as indefatigably jolly—certainly light-hearted for a Beethoven symphony, not muscular nor bombastic. It was easy on the ears but “jolly” seems an exaggeration. The comedic elements would have been easier to spot for a Viennese audience of his day.

Beethoven's friend Mälzel had recently invented the metronome with its mechanical ticking. The tick-tock rhythm throughout the second movement becomes irregular and completely breaks down by the end. The audience would have been used to a slow second movement but there is no slow movement in this work. This must have been part of the humor as was the brisk, abrupt ending. The minuetto third movement, a scherzo (Italian for joke), starts that way but by displacing accents it gradually becomes a march. We heard this as the horns playing out of sync with the orchestra. Throughout, lyrical, soft melodies were often interrupted by loud chords and deceptive cadences. CD program notes by Joseph McLellan helped us sort out what we had heard after we arrived home safely with only a bit of rain.

The great excitement of the evening for us was the prospect of hearing Symphony No. 4 (1992) by Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994). The two continuous movements that lasted about 20 minutes began with the sound of a deep, sustained breath with random instrumental soloists offering chance elements in the form of short statements to the flow. The soft harp and strings together gave the sound of gently descending fairy dust. The clarinet floats a lovely brief melody. A piano solo, then brief sentimental string radiance burst forth only to to go awry. A burst of percussion joined by the bass players added to a sense of alarm. The tempos are mostly slow and lack a sense of thrust and thus create an undercurrent of tension.

After about 7 minutes into the Allegro second movement the music offers livelier tempos. The melodic music from the opening movement transforms into many guises. The percussionists Chloe Carpenter, Keoni Chavez, Simon Crawford, Nathan Hockey and Bobby Smith migrated around the array of percussion instruments lining the back of the stage. Sometime they created the big climaxes, at other times they joined the strings, offering tense fragments. There was a central playful episode dominated by piccolo played by Jared Robles and Elizabeth Pratt that imitated chirps and peeps of birds followed by intense music on strings and brass.

The piece seemed to be ending several times, only to rejuvenate once again with “the dynamism of raging, blissful youth,” to quote Alex Ross. The GSA orchestra played with all the passion that the composition demanded. Their precision timing in what is a non-linear musical structure was amazing. You can find Alan Gilbert conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in this work on Youtube.

Between the Classical Period and Modern music there was the Romantic era, typified by the closing selection, Rakoczy March from Le Damnation de Faust (1845) by Hector Berlioz (1803-1869). Originally this rousing march had no connection to Faust. Berlioz arranged this ancient tune for a concert in Hungary and its success prompted him to incorporate it into Faust. At the time it was the unofficial state anthem of Hungary and is currently a popular folk music selection at weddings. The cheerful opening seems to be about to break into a can-can dance at any moment, enhanced by the timpani's low, rich undertones. It was a breathtaking, toe-tapping way to end the evening after the thorny, engaging Lutoslawsky symphony, sending us all out into the calm before the predicted snow storm.

Jeffrey Phelps was enthusiastically applauded by the audience as were the players. Stephen Coxe, artistic director of the Instrumental Music Department, was at the piano for the Lutoslawsky.

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