Rule Britannia: Ralph Vaughan Williams


Symphonicity presents an All-Mozart Afternoon
David S. Kunkel conducts Orchestra and Chorus of 108 Voices
Sandler Center, Virginia Beach, February 22, 2015
Review by John Campbell

In a program titled All Amadeus, Symphonicity, the Symphony Orchestra of Virginia Beach, offered a well-played selection of Mozart’s finest music. This is Symphonicity’s 34th season as a group of volunteer, avocational musicians led by Founding Conductor Kunkel. The orchestra has grown from a modest group of volunteers in 1981 to a professional quality orchestra as this program demonstrated.

Opening, as every Symphonicity program does, with The Star Spangled Banner, we then heard the ever ebullient Overture to Don Giovanni. In Mozart’s time an opera was an excuse for social merriment and an overture (literally “opening”) of a few loud chords was to get the audience’s attention, quelling conversation. Gradually these chords grew into a self-contained movement followed by a quieter section and a final loud piece in rapid tempo to gin-up excitement as the rise of the curtain approached.

Don Giovanni tells a tragic tale, with its hero pulled down to hell by a statue come-to-life at the end. Though classified as a comic opera, the composer’s mood-setting music opens with ominous use of brass and drums full of foreboding which is swept away by a brilliant, exuberant depiction of the virility of the seductive Don. Mozart himself wrote the ending we heard so that the overture could be used as a concert piece.

The “Jupiter,” Symphony No.41 in C major, KV 551 from 1798 was Mozart’s last. At age 25 he arrived in Vienna where he became acquainted with a wealthy music amateur, Baron van Swieten, who admired Bach and Handle. As Mozart re-orchestrated and conducted their choral and orchestral works for his new patron, the greatness of these two masters became apparent to him. Mozart’s enthusiasm for counterpoint is especially apparent in this paradigm of Classical symphonic form: four movements—the first and last with quick tempo, the second slower and the third a minuet with trio. There are unexpected pauses in the dynamic flow in the first movement; in the second serene quietude gives way to great restlessness with rhythmically insistent minor-key episodes. The Minuet, third movement, has a graceful tone with an earthy dance in the trio with sudden tutti (whole orchestra) outbursts. The last movement has an extraordinarily complex fugue that brings together all the previous themes simultaneously. The texture becomes denser and more complicated until, at last, one theme takes command, and with a flourish, brings the Jupiter to a triumphant close.

Intermission ended as some 108 singers from Symphonicity Chorus (Chorus Master Deborah Carr, Accompanist Sylvia Chapa) and 60 singers of Old Dominion University Concert Choir (Director Dr. Nancy Klein) filed on stage for Requiem in D minor, K 626. Conductor Kunkel soon arrived with soloists: soprano Del Fionn Sykes, contralto Kelly Montgomery, tenor Brian Nedvin and bass Branch Fields—recently seen as Second Soldier in Virginia Opera’s Salome. Mozart died before he could complete a commission for his Requiem. The opening Introit (Grant them eternal rest) is the only section that Mozart completed with opening phrases in imitative counterpoint. The intonation of the chorus was excellent, enthusiastic and focused. The moderate tempo chosen had a natural momentum. Mozart had also sketched out the Kyrie, Sequentia and Offertorium but the orchestration was incomplete. The choral writing drives the music and the four soloists rarely sing alone. The darkly colored orchestra supports the choir with vivid motives. This pictorial aspect is most evident in the Sequentia: “Tuba mirum," “Rex tremendae” (regal dotted-rhythms and rich, full choral singing), “Confutatis” (fiery accompaniment) and “Lacrimosa” (sighing strings) where the choral sound swells into a grand “Amen.”

There are unsolved mysteries of the Requiem’s composition and even of its authenticity. We know that the Offertorium, Sanctus, Benedictus and Communio were written by the hand of Franz Süssmayr. Did he mishandle Mozart’s intention? There is no way to know with current scholarship but what we do know is that this music has reached iconic status. Something in its subtlety and gravitas touches us and it was all there in this performance.

Ms. Montgomery’s open sound in the Benedictus was joined by the whole quartet and Mr.Field’s bass tone was so very sweet and in the Agnus Dei they all were superb together.

Symphonicity Presents Music by Ralph Vaughan Williams
Sandler Center for the Performing Arts, February 21, 2016
Review by John Campbell

Conductor David S. Kunkel led Symphonicity, the Symphony Orchestra of Virginia Beach, in a program of three works by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). The opening orchestral English Folk Song Suite represents a major emphasis of the composer’s musical life—helping develop a new national style based on English folk tradition and drawing on English music from the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. He collected over 800 folk songs and used nine of them in this, his first band piece. I. March-Seventeen Come Sunday is a sweet folk tune. The rhythmic changes moved along smartly, ending with a somber hornpipe tune. II. Intermezzo-My Bonnie Boy was sad but sprightly. III. March-Folk Songs from Somerset had the snare drum pacing an extroverted celebration. The orchestra sounded great.

Concertmaster Megan Van Gomple demonstrated her superb violin technique as soloist in The Lark Ascending. The violin is the sound of the lark; the hovering flight of the opening is quiet and delicate, describing the flight of the lark as it climbs higher and higher. The music avoids a tonal center and without bar lines the solo seems improvisatory. Solo violin with the orchestra gave us nature sounds of a brook, a meadow and children dancing—a tableau of idealized English country life. When a violin credenza soars over the orchestra it is as if the bird flies away.

After intermission, Hodie (This Day), a Christmas piece, was the sole work. Vaughan Williams was a lifelong agnostic and the piece was written in a spirit of community. Conductor Kunkel, who had heard the piece as a young military musician in Boston, had always wanted to conduct Hodie and this was his chance. It requires, in addition to a full orchestra, an organ, a large adult choir, a children’s choir and three soloists. Bringing together the Virginia Children’s Chorus (Artistic Director Carol Thomas Downing); Old Dominion University Choir (Dr. Nancy Klein, Choirmaster); Symphonicity Chorus (Deborah Carr, Choirmaster) and soloists Amy Cofield Williamson, soprano; Scott Williamson, tenor; and David Newman, baritone, was a herculean task.

Fortunately, the text was included in the program booklet and there was enough illumination in the hall to follow the text. Crisp celebrational chords open this sweet, indulgence for our retiring conductor. Part I. Prologue’s burst of choral sound, with bright bells (furnished by celesta), rang out Nowell! Nowell! Nowell! by all 135 voices. Part II. Narration with organ only was given to the 40-member Virginia Children’s Chorus Concert Choir. In part III. Song, soprano Amy Cofield Williamson sang “It was a winter wild.” Part IV. Narration had the children telling of the arrival of the shepherds with Amy Williamson setting the stage for the full choir’s “Glory to God.”

Tenor Scott Williamson sang the description of the shepherds visit as if looking back in time at an event remembered. VIII. Narration and IX. Pastoral were followed by a lovely soprano Lullaby (XI.) with the soft sounds of the chorus wrapping around Amy’s sound. A trumpet followed by orchestra with bells set the stage for the tenor’s Hymn (XII), “Bright Portals of the Sky,” with orchestral outbursts punctuating.

The Wise Men were announced by the children’s choir leading into drum rolls for The March of the Three Kings (XIV). The baritone, David Newman delivered the gold, Mr. Williamson—the frankincense and Ms. Williamson—the myrrh. All of the voices and instruments joined together in the mighty Epilogue (XVI), asserting muscular Christianity and the power of the British Empire. It was triumphant. But by the time it was composed (1953-1954) it was a comfortable look back at the past—the empire was on the way out and Benjamin Britten had ushered in a new, much more engaging way of setting religious texts.

With lovely melodies and unstable rhythms, Vaughan Williams’ music was a well-met challenge for choruses and orchestra. The soloists gave their all, only to have their sound often smothered in the composer’s orchestration. Though flawed, we can be glad to have the chance to hear this piece because it offers the best of the liberal 19th century English musical tradition.

Conductor David S. Kunkel, who will retire at the end of this season, has given 35 years of tireless effort to the voluntary community symphony that he founded. In 1981 Mr. Kunkel was a conducting instructor at the Armed Forces Music at Little Creek and was called to conduct 35 unpaid musicians, thus meeting a need for a performing outlet for local orchestral musicians who held daytime jobs.

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