Virginia Symphony Bolero!
January 25 , 2014
Review by M.D. Ridge
In a surprise opening for the Virginia Symphony January 25 at Chrysler Hall, the entire brass section—French horns, trumpets, trombones and tuba—lined up onstage to play the wonderful fanfare by Paul Dukas that introduces his ballet, La Peri. Playing without conductor, they had a wonderful time—and so did the audience.
The evening’s twin piano soloists were Christina and Michelle Naughton, who are twins—identical twins, born in Princeton, New Jersey, to parents of European and Chinese descent. The sisters are graduates of Juilliard and Curtis; although they perform separately, they choose more and more to play together, both piano four hands and with dual pianos. Attired in similar asymmetric dresses and spike-heeled, over-the-knee black boots, one couldn’t really tell them apart—but Michelle was on the left by the first violins and Christina was on the right, by the cellos. The overhead screens were a plus, for once, allowing audience members to see both pianists clearly.
They began with the delightful Carnival of the Animals, by Camille Saint-Saëns. In 1886, to entertain friends at Carnival time, he wrote a wonderful 14-movement romp for two pianos and nine other instruments. Its premiere in 1922 was shortly after his death. The “Introduction and Royal March of the Lion” used ascending/descending chromatic scales and the pianos’ dynamics to suggest a lion’s roar. Staccato pianos and strings produced the plucking sound of “Hens and Roosters.” Fast runs up and down the keyboards produced “Wild Donkeys.” To depict lumbering “Tortoises,” Offenbach’s “CanCan” got slowed waaay down—a musical joke. The deep voices of double basses shone in “Elephants,” and in the pianos, a jumping-around melody with grace notes everywhere represented “Kangaroos.” In “Aquarium,” shimmering arpeggios, and a floating melody line in strings and flute, created a dream-like otherworld. Saint-Saëns placed critics—“The People with Long Ears”—in the menagerie, with the shrieking, up-bowed violins. (They’re also heard in the Finale, braying.) The clarinet was the “Cuckoo,” repeating the same two notes over the lovely piano accompaniment. Flutes were flitting birds in “Aviary.” Anyone who’s ever had to practice major scales on a piano recognized the “Pianists” movement. From the composer’s Danse macabre, the “Fossils” movement brought dancing skeletons to life with xylophone and pizzicato strings. The final movement—the only one Saint-Saëns allowed to be performed while he was still alive, was “The Swan,” which showcased Michael Daniels’ sumptuous cello with subtle, liquid piano. A cheerful, dazzling Finale topped everything off.
The Naughton sisters returned to play Francis Poulenc’s Concerto in D Minor for Two Pianos and Orchestra. The first movement was spiky and jazzy with percussion, then thoughtful and pensive, then sprightly. The songlike piano melodies of the Larghetto movement blended beautifully with the orchestra. The Allegro molto finale was very fast and march-like, grandly sweeping, with liquid piano and forceful rhythms.
The Naughtons traded pianos for their bravura encore, Witold Lutoslawski’s Variations on a Theme by Paganini, which had them bouncing up and down on their piano stools for added oomph.
Claude Debussy’s La Mer (The Sea) was gorgeous: Impressionism for the ear. Principal harpist Barbara Chapman was joined by harpist Vince Zentner for deep, deep tones in the first movement as the sea rises up and crashes back in giant waves. In the sparking second movement, Jeux des vagues (the play of the waves), the harps were limpid in the interplay of rhythm and pure sound. The final movement—Dialogue of Wind and Sea—the elements are air and water colliding violently until the sun breaks through clouds. Just gorgeous.
The final work on the program was Ravel’s iconic Bolero, originally a ballet score. Its insistent, mesmerizing rhythm was drawn out in one long, long crescendo, brilliantly but understatedly, by percussionists Rob Cross and Scott Jackson. Repeated sultry melodies passed from one instrument to another. . . clarinet, flute, saxophone, bassoon, oboe, brass, strings . . . until the entire orchestra was swept into the smoldering dance.
This review was originally broadcast on WHRO 90.3 FM’s “From the other side of the Footlights.”
Virginia Symphony Orchestra Hosts Joshua Bell
Virginia Arts Festival
Chrysler Hall, May 3, 2014
Review by John Campbell
The program opened with Festival Overture, Op. 96 by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), played by the VSO led by Conductor JoAnn Falletta. Shostakovich’s Festival Overture is big, celebrational music that opens with a glorious fanfare. Later there are refined passages, well-paced and engaging. Written the year after Stalin’s death, a time of great relief and increasing freedom for artists in the Soviet Union, Shostakovich penned this, his most conservative composition, to celebrate the 37th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. All that aside, it was a rousing opener with accelerated tempos and brilliant playing by an orchestra that created a sense of grandeur.
When Maestro Falletta returned to the stage, Joshua bell appeared for the first time with his 1713 Gibson ex-Huberman Stradivarius, valued at $4 million. Featured on the cover of the Spring 2014 Virginia Arts Festival brochure, the boyishly handsome, 46 year old violin superstar, billed as an innovator, played exquisitely a nineteenth-century standard European repertory piece, Symphonie espagnole, Op. 21 by Edouard Lalo (1823-1892). Wearing an open-collared, deep blue shirt, a vest and black slacks and with feet firmly planted wide apart, Mr. Bell moved and swayed as he played this flashy, external music. The symphonic sound was full and grand. The beauty of tone and sense of confidence he displayed was impressive.
Applause after the first movement apparently didn’t displease the performer. To quote Mr. Bell in the Virginian-Pilot article: “When that happens to me, I’m delighted, because that means I’m getting an audience in, that doesn’t normally come to a classical music concert.” Using a sparkling, Spanish waltz with its lush orchestration at the beginning, the sweeter violin tone in the second movement felt more intimate. We were set up to feel the near tears in the sultry, dark and soulful third movement.
The concluding Rondo movement felt mildly dangerous with Gypsy intrigues smoothed out by period European sound. The main subject sets off a series of dazzling episodes. Lalo begins with a nice trick to raise anticipation: he repeats the orchestral accompaniment many times until the violin soloist inserts the theme, dancing to a brilliant conclusion.
A thunderous standing ovation brought Mr. Bell back to the stage several times. The great enthusiasm of the audience finally petered out when it became apparent that there would be no crowd-pleasing short violin encore. Mr. Bell only gave a grim, tight-lipped smile when acknowledging the audience. He tours 250 days a year and since February has played the Lalo piece in Pittsburg, Kansas City and Memphis. Before coming here he was in Charlotte and in New York City conducting the Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields Orchestra. Perhaps one of his innovations is to avoid pandering to audiences that usually don’t come to classical concerts.
After intermission VSO played An Alpine Symphony, Op. 64 (1911-1915) by German composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949). In 1911 Strauss composed sketches for a tone poem based on his boyhood holiday of mountain climbing to see the spectacular Alpine vistas. In 1915, after his opera librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal was drafted during WWI, Strauss turned again to his Alpine project. In twenty-two sections he describes a day in the mountains. The work is scored for an orchestra of over 150 players, including a wind and thunder machine.
Photographs by musician and photographer Tobias Melle of Munich, Germany, were projected on a giant screen that covered most of the rear wall behind the orchestra. The opening, “Night”, with darkness brightened gradually by the moon with many layersof long-held tones, all notes of B-flat minor scale heard simultaneously. From the depths emerges a rugged theme of low, brass instruments representing the Mountains. Picture by picture, musical theme by theme, we see sunrise, its ascent up the mountains, the forest, streams, waterfalls, rocks on rooftops, cows, sheep, flowers, a bird, a rainbow and eventually a moving panorama of a blue, hazy valley unfolding gradually. There was a lunar eclipse, glaciers with dangerous moments, fog and gradual darkness.
The spectacular and sudden storm in music was sometimes enhanced by pictures but it was the orchestral sound that carried the greatest impact, enhanced by wind machine and the crashing thunder of percussion. Stunning! The storm passed, sunset comes and then reverie. Night returns with descending scales with notes piled-up, a reminiscence of the opening Mountain theme. Our safe return is accomplished.
The large, wooden cross in the mountains held in place by guy wires was used as a theme of sorts in the picture narration. This was ironic since to Strauss the ascent and descent of a mountain stands symbolically for the Nietzschean ideal of attaining the purpose of one’s life through the strength of one’s will, without reliance on religious belief. Nature and man’s own nature is celebrated in An Alpine Symphony.
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