Silas Huff Leads Symphonicity
in Wagner, Elgar and Beethoven
Guest Cellist Andrew Janss
Sandler Center, February 19, 2017
Review by John Campbell
Silas Huff, the third conductor in Symphonicity's “Quest for the Best” search for a new music director, led a program titled Love, Strife and Fate. President Rebecca Brown of Symphonicity's Board of Directors said “We want our music director to be part of our community and ensure that Symphonicity continutes to play for the love of music . . . [he] must make magic with the musicians and bond with you, the audience.” Audience members are given ways to give feedback after each concert to help in selecting the new director who will be announced in June.
Each conductor chooses the program he is to conduct and in Mr. Huff's case, he had five weeks to rehearse with the orchestra. The program opened with the overture from the obscure Richard Wagner (1813-1883) opera Das Liebesverbot (Forbidden Love). Mr. Huff is a conductor, composer and Company Commander of the U.S. Army School of Music in Virginia Beach as was David S. Kunkel, the Virginia Beach Symphony's first and only conductor for 35 seasons. Mr. Kunkel has been in the audience at each concert this season and was lauded by Huff and acknowledged by the audience.
Written while he was 22-23 years old, Das Liebesverbot is based on Shakespeare's comedy Measure for Measure. It was poorly staged and sung and was a “resounding flop," disappeared from the stage, and was not presented again during his lifetime. Evident even at the age of 23, a central theme of all of Wagner's operas concerns human sexual urges in conflict with man-made laws. Wagner's rebellion against authority carried over to his music, going out of his way to incorporate non-German musical elements from both French and Italian. It was a lively hodge-podge of vitality and color, played brilliantly. There was a cancan inspired section and Italian lyricism.
Guest cellist Andrew Janns joined Mr. Huff and the orchestra in Edward Elgar's Concerto in E, Op. 85. Mr. Janns has performed on four continents and in many prestigious venues and is the youngest music faculty member in history at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. His commanding performance was a joy to hear, though the work is somber. After the carnage of WWI, Elgar “poured his soul” into the last piece he completed; its complexity is a summing-up of his lifetime in music. The work never really brightens-up yet it is immediately touching. This is one of Elgar's shorter works—only 30 minutes long—with remarkably transparent orchestration, letting the lyrical singing of the cello come through clearly. Guided by Mr. Huff, the orchestra played superbly well with a strong sense of ensemble.
The third curtain call for the Elgar ended when Mr. Janns gave us Mark Summers (b.1958) Julie-O. With a mellow opening, this four-minute work has soulful, deep notes and plucked jazzy sections.
The Ludwig van Beethoven Symphony No. 5 in C Minor opens with those 3 short notes in the strings, urgently repeated before coming to rest on a lower fourth note. This musical phrase has become a cultural cliche. The playing of the orchestra was exhilarating and Mr. Huff added two horns, making the brass section really majestic.
Beginning as a young adult, my attitude toward Beethoven's middle period blockbusters was influenced by the piano icon Glenn Gould, one of the favorite performers of my generation. He describes the Fifth as a large-scale work “rather heroic in attitude and triumphantly tonal.” Gould was baffled about why this work became popular because it meets none of his criterion for great music which include ”harmonic and rhythmic variety, contrapuntal invention—in fact they are almost entirely absent in this piece. Beethoven is the supreme historical example of a composer on an ego-trip, a composer absolutely confident that whatever he did was justified simply because he did it. I don't know any other way to explain the predominance of those empty, banal gestures that serve as his themes in that middle period.” Gould concludes it must be gossip that keeps it on top but not so for his early and late period themes. For all of that, I greatly enjoyed this live experience, as did the enthusiastic audience.
This Sunday, March 26 at 3 pm, Symphonicity welcomes its fourth conductor candidate to the podium for an afternoon concert featuring well-known classics of Russian composers Alexander Glazanov, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Piotr Tchaikovsky. Dr. Sergey Bogza, winner of the 2016 International Conductors Workshop and Competition, will conduct. Joining Bogza as a guest soloist is pianist Michael Davidman. More information: http://www.artsongupdate.org/Calendar/Calendar.htm
Sergey Bogza Leads Symphonicity
Sandler Center, March 26, 2017
Review by John Campbell
After a brief and enthusiastic introduction by President of the Symphonicity Board of Directors Rebecca Brown, Sergey Bogza conducted an all Russian program, Passionate and Poignant, featuring music by Glazunov, Rachmaninov & Tchaikovsky. He is the fourth of five candidates vying to become the next musical director of Symphonicity.
Overture: Carnaval, Op. 45 by Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936) followed the playing of the National Anthem. Glazunov was a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov and a well-known champion of Tchaikovsky. He lived through through the Russian revolutionary period to become director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, but by 1928 the instability in the U.S.S.R. had him leaving Russia. He visited the U.S. in 1929 and settled in France for the rest of his life. Glazunov was 27 when he wrote Carnaval with its big dramatic opening written in Classical form for large orchestra. By contrast the second theme was quiet and lyrical. The themes are developed before its final return. Conductor Bogza, a trim, energetic, well-spoken younger man led the orchestra in crisp movements with “body passion”—in dramatic passages he seemed to levitate to create the interior clarity letting the music speak in his straightforward way.
When Maestro Bogza returned after the opening piece he directed our attention to David Kunkel, illuminated by a spotlight as he took his bow, who retired in 2016 after conducting the orchestra for 35 years.
Next we heard Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43. Alex Ross has written “Rachmaninov, who inherited a healthy skepticism for Wagner from his idol Tchaikovsky, learned from Wagner's orchestration how to bathe a Slavic melody in a sonic halo” and that is in deed how things unfolded.
This music, written by a 61 year old Rachmaninov, was played by 19 year old guest piano soloist Michael Davidman, who entered Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music on a merit-based, full-tuition scholarship in 2015. Rachmaninoff, who was a celebrated and formidable concert pianist himself, wrote showy, challenging music and gave the premiere in Baltimore on November 7, 1934 with Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra.
The first variation is stated mostly in the strings while the pianist plays only single notes from the melodic line. The piano takes over in a torrent of notes in the next variation with brief interspersed phrases from the orchestra. This continues through the fifth variation with showy, light-hearted piano—a sort of suspended-in-mid-air lyrical poem.
In the sixth of the twenty-four variations the tempo slows and the piano remains playful. In the seventh things shift as Rachmaninov's trademark “Dies Irae” theme from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead shows up and continues in the next three variations. Other variations remain ethereal and subdued and introspective, eventually giving way to brilliant, exciting playing. It is as if the light of day has broken through the previous gloom when we hear Rachmaninoff's most famous melody, the eighteenth variation's lovely lyric tune—the one you hear on all the greatest classical hits recordings. Mr. Davidman played with total sincerity, bringing tears to my eyes. The rest of the piece proceeded swiftly to its conclusion, with each variation more scintillating than the last. It seems to be heading for a grand climax but the composer pulls back and ends quietly with the last, lost fragment of the memorable theme. The audience roared their approval.
After several bows, dressed in tight, black pants and a black shirt with the tail out, this petite powerhouse pianist, having played the Rachmaninoff from memory, played an encore—a transcription that the pianist, himself had written of Vissi d'arte (I live for art) from Puccini's Tosca.
After intermission Piotr Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) Symphony No. 6 in b minor, Op. 74 was presented. Known as the “Pathetique,” in Russian it carries the idea of passion, full of emotion and suffering, and so it was. The symphony opens quietly with a deep nostalgic feeling. There is no rush of sound. After pauses the music begins again and again, only later to swell into fullness. The English horn call (Rena Long) evoked in this writer a sense of a forest scene of early morning. String basses and cellos offered contrast to the violins. In time, wave after wave of expressive loveliness moved into an explosive, full orchestral sound as if angry waves had rolled in. It became a choppy but scintillating turmoil. Within this depth the former beauty emerges as the movement ends.
A familiar lyicism comes in the second movement offering a clarinet solo (Jo Marie Larkin) with the deep rumble of timpani (Brian Tuttle). A waltz opens, fleshed out as the whole orchestra is added to become a rich and full expression but the heartbreak in the timpani comes again. The tempo is steady and engaging and deeply romantic. The quiet ending features prominent clarinets. There is a buzz of expectation as the opening theme of the fourth movement begins. The violins set the stage for repeating flute statements embellished by other instrumental colors. This shimmering glide of sound carried us forward in a march with ever increasing intensity, holding us suspended waiting for a resolution in a grand climax. There was clapping from a spellbound audience during the pause.
Once we quieted down the adagio lamentation began again with such smoothly played beauty with lingering pathos in the air. An early theme returns enthralling us once again with buzzing percussion until the gong was struck offering a single heartbeat as the sound slowly died away. The audience exploded into applause. This was certainly my favorite musical experience of the guest conductors, with only one to go on Sunday, May 7.
It turns out that the apparent waltz in the third movement was not technically a waltz because it was set in 5/4 time rather than the danceable ¾ time. Personally I will go with my experience.