Viva Italia!

Gershwin and More



Virginia Symphony Orchestra
Midori, Guest Violinist
Chrysler Hall, Norfolk
September 21, 2013
Review By M.D. Ridge

Some child prodigies flare up like rockets and vanish nearly as quickly. Not so the long-lasting phenomenon Midori—who made her debut at 11 with the New York Philharmonic—and 31 years of triumphs later, played the Brahms Concerto in D Major with Virginia Symphony September 21st at Chrysler Hall.

She attacked the music, with utter concentration, moving into delicate arpeggios and beautiful pianissimo diminuendo. Her 18th-century Guarnerius del Gesu had tremendous sweetness of tone—a little less “in your face” than a Stradivarius, yet completely capable of expressive strength. Midori bent her head as if listening to the violin’s own voice speaking in her ear: “Play me this way. . . now change. . . shhhh. . .” At times her bow was a sword to pierce the music; at others, a way to caress the sound out of the instrument. It was a demonstration of how to be dramatic without “shouting.”

Throughout the performance, conductor JoAnn Falletta brought phrases down as if opening a door through which the violin glided gracefully. Midori’s square-tipped fingers had full measure of the double and triple stops in the first movement’s challenging solo cadenza, which seemed almost effortless. Falletta was looking intently over her shoulder at Midori, and had the orchestra’s own splendid voice completely supportive of the soloist.

In the slow Adagio movement, the high, sweet violin was in dialogue with the orchestra— both were flat-out gorgeous, especially Sherie Lake Aguirre’s soulful, sensual oboe. The final Allegro giocoso was brisk and brilliant, with the soloist’s fast runs to dramatic statements, as she crouched to re-engage the theme. It was a remarkable and memorable performance by both Midori and the orchestra.

Midori’s encore—the fugue from the Bach B minor violin sonata—was a dazzling piece of virtuosity and sinuous strength quite different from the Brahms, but no less thrilling. (Principal violist Beverly Kane Baker was watching intently, and at the end of the encore, she threw her head back and her hands up, completely wowed.)

The program had begun with Dmitri Kabalevski’s exciting overture to his now-forgotten 1938 opera, Colas Breugnon. While excerpts from his suite The Comedians might be more familiar to WHRO listeners, this overture had wonderful rhythmic elements, with brisk, emphatic percussion, melodic sweeps of middle strings, and marvelous contracts in the woodwinds.

Prokofiev was the first composer to set Romeo and Juliet as ballet music, but no one did it better. Every time I hear it, I can’t not see, in my mind’s eye, the New York City Ballet, with the young Juliet fresh as spring in filmy yellow, or the Stuttgart Ballet’s Egon Madsen as Mercutio, with two girls on one arm and three on the other, gaily dancing into the tragic duel with Tybalt. And so it was at Chrysler Hall last Saturday.

The suite opened with a huge, almost deafening clash of orchestral sound, followed by restrained quiet building back up to a new clash, Then came the angular march of the Montagues and the Capulets: complete arrogance, turned into music. The young Juliet was evoked by flights of flutes and subtle violin countermelody, in the lightly skittering essence of youthful joy. In one movement after another, Falletta brought out the passion and dramatic depth of the music—and the musicians. It was all there, everything one could have wished.

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

Viva Italia! , Virginia Symphony Orchestra
Chrysler Hall
October 26, 2013
Review by M.D. Ridge

Virginia Symphony presented its Viva Italia! program October 26, during Halloween week, which may have accounted for a number of empty seats. But those folks didn’t know what they were missing. It was a rousing program, with a terrific guest conductor—Maximiano Valdés—and the full Symphony Chorus.

The major choral highlight was Rossini’s Stabat Mater. One usually associates the name of Rossini not with sacred music, but with bubbly comic operas such as The Barber of Seville or Cinderella. However, after he retired from writing operas, he was commissioned to write a Stabat Mater, a long Latin hymn in 3-line stanzas that describe the sorrowful mother Mary standing at the foot of the cross. Part of the Catholic liturgy for Our Lady of Sorrows, it is often sung during Holy Week. The stanza titles were in the program, but having the full text, or at least a translation, would have been a big help.

I have often complained of soloists’ voices not blending, but that was not the case here. A stellar quartet of singers sang with passion and sensitivity, each voice distinct, but blending seamlessly in duets.

In the march-like second movement, Cujus animam, tenor Robert Breault had a well-rounded tone, though sometimes his lower notes were lost among the instruments. His ornamented cadenza at the end went up to a startlingly high note, then to a lower resolution.

The third movement showcased the high silvery voice of soprano Mary Wilson and the dark richness of mezzo Karin Mushegain. (Mushegain was the very convincing Hansel in Virginia Opera’s Hansel and Gretel two years ago.) Their duet was beautifully tuned, with lovely ornaments.

Bass baritone Timothy Jones was a revelation in Pro peccatis, with superb diction, and a voice of such clarity that it shone right through the movement’s tympani, cellos and trumpets. The full chorus joined him in the a cappella Eia Mater movement with bass recitative in unusual rising arpeggios—simply wonderful.

In the lilting melody and rhythmic tensions of the Sancta Mater movement, the quartet was a beautiful blend of individual voices. Mushegain’s long, spinning tone and superb breath control shone in Fac ut partem, leaping precisely down to low notes and back up, passionate and powerful.

Wilson’s soprano soared in the most typically Rossini movement, Inflammatus, with the full chorus. All four soloists joined the full Virginia Symphony chorus for Quando corpus morietur, which envisions paradise with hints of unusual harmonies, and breathtaking pianissimo ending. The final movement, In sempiterna saecula, was stunning, with quartet and full chorus and orchestra, fuguing from voice to voice. Maestro Valdés kept its perpetual vocal motion smoothly on track, slowing to the satisfying Amen. The audience erupted in cheers, especially when chorus master Robert Shoup came out for his bow.

The earlier half of the program had featured a rousing performance of the overture from Verdi’s La forza del destino, with lovely woodwinds, declarative brass, and portentous lower strings, all to a nice, crisp ending. Valdés guided the orchestra with a good, tight sound throughout.

The Prelude from Verdi’s Aida was marked by tender, ardent soft strings. The Triumphal March is certainly one of the most familiar works in the world, with the famous melody of its clarion trumpet call. The Symphony Chorus had some ragged entrances and the tenors were a tad strident, but the overall effect was excellent. In the whirling music of the Ballet, I was riveted by Rob Cross’s soft cymbals—which is not an oxymoron, and not easy. The reprise of the stirring Triumphal March was all very grand — as in grand opera.

Chilean-born Maximiano Valdés may be one of the most effective guest conductors I’ve seen. He is music director of the Puerto Rico Symphony and artistic director of the Festival Casals in San Juan, and has conducted orchestras all over the world.

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

Gershwin & More, Virginia Symphony Orchestra
Regent University Theater
November 9, 2013
Review by M.D. Ridge

For their Gershwin and More American Classics program November 9 at Regent University, the Virginia Symphony players spent a long time vigorously tuning up. It’s the greatest sound in the world, and this time it served as a concentrated preparation for the Charles Ives and Samuel Barber works on the program.

They began with Barber’s “Overture to The School for Scandal,” whose jaunty but oddly disturbing melody began in the strings and came back in oboe, then clarinet, until the entire orchestra was sweeping along to a pizzicato decrescendo just before the big ending. Tasty!

Conductor Benjamin Rous changed the program a bit, moving Bernstein’s “Three Dance Episodes from On the Town to the first half of the program, and playing the two Ives pieces and another Barber selection as a set—which really tied everything together.

The first Ives piece was The Unanswered Question, in which a trumpet lontana repeats a five-note phrase at odd intervals, interrupting, sometimes clashing with long sustained phrases of strings or woodwinds. The solo trumpet hit a wrong note in the first iteration, but his tone warmed and the rest was fine. The tensions of elegant dissonances were beautifully handled by Rous.

Country Band March was another Ives piece—think of two different brass bands, playing different tunes, marching past each other. If you closed your eyes, you could see them: funny contrasts, wild rhythmic clashes, even a quick fragment of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” — very Ivesian.

Barber’s Second Essay for Orchestra had the punctuation of timpani against strings, horns, rapid woodwinds, then trumpets, in great slashes of sound.

After that set of modern American composers came the multitalented Leonard Bernstein’s Three Dance Episodes from the Broadway musical On the Town, which itself began in Bernstein’s score for the Jerome Robbins ballet, Fancy Free, about three sailors on leave in the Big Apple during wartime. In the first dance, “The Great Lover,” conductor Rous just bounced along with the orchestra (and everyone in the audience wanted to). In “Lonely Town,” the trumpet laid out the melancholy melody. The third segment, “Times Square,” showed off Bernstein’s mastery of rhythm in the tune we know as “New York, New York.” The dance swings from its clarinet opener; a saxophone slinks in, swaggering; the orchestra swings with high energy, clever percussion and sprightly flute—quintessential New York.

Rous was erect and springy, with a birdlike intensity; it’s marvelous to see him interact with the orchestra.

George Gershwin was born twenty years before Bernstein, but both made names for themselves early in show tunes and orchestral music. Bernstein wrote the music for On the Town when he was 27. Gershwin at the same age composed his Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra—which was played, appropriately enough, by Micah McLaurin, an 18-year-old award-winning pianist from Charleston, South Carolina. In the first movement, playing from memory, McLaurin’s long, long, fluid hands could caress the piano or effortlessly crank up the volume in crashing chords, pouring out rippling arpeggios with that Gershwin swing, at one point outlining what amounted to a descant to the string melody. The second movement, Adagio, had jaunty rhythmic statements, and a really nice, if brief, violin solo by concertmaster Vahn Armstrong. McLaurin played with authority and assurance. The third movement, Allegro, was a piano workout, with fast, frenzied phrases and crisp percussion.

McLaurin’s encore was a dazzling arrangement of Gershwin’s song, Embraceable You.

As I said, only twenty years separated Gershwin from Bernstein—yet the harmonic sonorities of the Concerto in F sounded a little . . . dated, in a way that Bernstein’s music doesn’t. It would have been interesting to see how Gershwin might have grown, musically, had he not died so young.

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

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