Carmina Burana

Falletta & Buechner



Virginia Symphony Opener—Emmanuel Ax
Chrysler Hall, September 20, 2014
Review by M.D. Ridge

The September 20 season opener for Virginia Symphony got off to a sizzling start with Richard Strauss’s tone poem, Don Juan. Written when the composer was only 24, the exciting work began with brilliant full orchestra, evolving in lively, romantic, pensive and foreboding turns. (Think Errol Flynn at his peak.) Concertmaster Vahn Armstrong’s achingly sweet violin phrases and Sherie Lake Aguirre’s lovely oboe were standouts, as was the passion expressed by four French horns in unison.

Usually a solo performer will do his or her stint in one half of the program. However, the amazing pianist Emmanuel Ax appeared both before and after the intermission, playing two quite dissimilar works by quite dissimilar composers: Mozart and, again, Richard Strauss.

The orchestra slimmed down for Mozart’s intimate and charming Piano Concerto No. 14 in E-flat Major, for which the composer specified small orchestra. In the first movement, Ax used short figures—starting in the left hand and echoed in the right, then reversed—to display extraordinary clarity and articulation, making the piano a quiet voice singing in dialogue with the orchestra. In the second, Andantino, movement, conductor JoAnn Falletta kept the strings beautifully restrained, so that they were very intense and supportive against the quiet piano. Ax’s thoughtful phrasing brought beauty of articulation to even tiny little runs, soft as breath and as life-giving. The final movement, Allegro non troppo, was seamless—forceful or delicate by turns, but always transparent as crystal.

Polish-born, Ax and his family moved to Canada when he was a young boy; he attended Juilliard and, later, Columbia University, where he majored in French. He won the first Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition in 1974, and 40 years later, is still dazzling audiences.

After the interval, Ax returned to play Richard Strauss’s fiendishly difficult Burleske for Piano and Orchestra—as different from the Mozart concerto as Beethoven is from a lullaby. The German word burleske differs from its English counterpart; the German meaning implies mockery—and overlaps, theatrically, with extravaganza. The work’s original title was Scherzo, which means joke—but both titles are misleading. It’s no joke. Strauss wrote it for Hans von Bülow, who thought it “a complicated piece of nonsense” and refused to learn it. A few years later, a more evolved version was premiered by Eugen d’Albert, and eventually published.

The work began with a thunder of timpani, answered by the orchestra; then Ax reeled out shimmering ribbons of piano notes, soft against the orchestra. A lovely romantic section preceded a dialog of authoritative piano and timpani, followed by a pensive ¾ passage, then fast, brilliant piano, more timpani. . . and a surprisingly quiet finish. Both Ax and conductor Falletta seemed in perfect consonance throughout. The audience erupted in enthusiastic bravos and appreciative whistling.

Ravel’s La Valse went through a number of changes before becoming an orchestral showpiece. Its French composer originally intended it as a symphonic poem, a tribute to the Viennese waltz, whose rhythms and joi de vivre he found wonderful. He reworked it as a ballet for Serge Diaghilev but that didn’t pan out, and it became a popular concert work. In 1926, the ballet was premiered by the Royal Flemish Ballet, and its complex music has since been choreographed by Nijinsky, Balanchine and Frederick Ashton. It has been seen as a passionate anti-war statement after the carnage of World War I, but Ravel commented, “I did not envision a. . . struggle between life and death,” and had imagined the ballet as being set in a mid-19th-century imperial ballroom.

It began quietly, with the murmur of double basses, joined by the lush harps of Barbara Chapman and Vince Zentner. Other instruments entered in fragments, different melodies, some sweet, some crisp with percussion. Strange modulations and changes of instrumentation became macabre as the waltz spun and whirled. Falletta masterfully brought the orchestra right to the brink of chaos. (One could hear echoes of “Wow!” in the audience.)

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

Carmina Burana
Virginia Symphony/Symphony Chorus/Richmond Ballet
Chrysler Hall, October 25, 2014
Review by M.D. Ridge

Norfolk is a great town for dance, so Chrysler Hall was at near-capacity October 25, when the Virginia Symphony, the Symphony Chorus and the Richmond Ballet joined forces for a stunning evening.

In the first half, Richmond Ballet’s production of Mozartiana featured Valerie Tellmann in a graceful style completely different from her spectacular performance as the Chosen One in last season’s Rite of Spring at the Virginia Arts Festival. Mozartiana was the last great work by legendary choreographer George Balanchine; it mixed adult dancers with young students, classical steps with jazz, folk and modern ones, in daring ways. Tellmann’s elegant pirouettes in the “Prayer” movement, Fernando Sabino’s catlike insouciance in the Gigue, and Marty Davis’s powerful leaps, and duets with Tellman, in Theme and Variations—all came together in the Finale with the complete cast in electrifying subtlety. M.K. Stewart’s effective lighting design (after Ronald Bates’s original) made black costumes visible against black curtains. Not easy, but crucial.

There are those who write off Carmina Burana, Carl Orff’s masterpiece, as just a popular warhorse. Certainly it’s popular—bits from it have appeared in everything from movie scores to TV commercials. But it’s challenging: for the chorus and the orchestra, there are constantly changing meters and rhythmic complexities. The three soloists have to go beyond the usual top-of-their-range notes into the stratosphere. Add the Richmond Ballet and the late John Butler’s choreography—controversial at its first performance in 1959—and the tension rachets up.

When the curtain opened, the large chorus was on risers across the back of the stage. They launched into the familiar strains of “O Fortuna,” as dancers in long dark robes came on.

The overall look of Part One (Springtime) was very Martha Graham—understandably, since Butler had been a dancer with Graham’s company. In one lovely segment, the dancers were clad in pale yellow, the entire ensemble moving in graceful rhythm to the chorus’s soft, ethereal voices. In a subsequent segment, dancers wearing what looked like loincloths of leather leaves brought out the primitive side of the music.

The four principals—Lauren Fagone, Maggi Small, Thomas Ragland and Philip Skaggs—danced with power, grace and passion throughout.

The wonderful vocal soloists wore brown monk’s robes and sang from either side of the stage, just in front of the curtains. Kevin Wetzel’s low notes occasionally got covered by the orchestra, but his rich deep baritone rose thrillingly to every high note.

In Part Two (in the Tavern), Wetzel was followed by David Artz, whose clear, passionate tenor made memorable the song of the roasting swan. Soprano Bethany Baker did not appear until Part Three (The Court of Love), but oh, my, she was worth waiting for: long, spinning phrases and effortlessly clear high notes, sung with beautiful simplicity. All three singers were jaw-droppingly good.

As the music’s Wheel of Fate turned, the dancers evolved from the primitive costumes and steps to long pleated gowns that caught the light and emphasized the change in choreography. Earthy bare feet became simple ballet slippers, then elegant pointe shoes—costumes and choreography working together for pure visual delight.

The orchestra was led with energetic, masterful brio by guest conductor Ron Matson. However, the orchestral sound for eerie Danse Macabre by Saint-Saens, which began the program, was rather uneven. There were mics in the pit so that the singers and dancers could hear the orchestra, but solo instruments jutted out oddly. Concertmaster Vahn Armstrong’s violin shone in scordatura tuning, but seemed very loud. However, for the rest of the evening, no imbalance could be perceived.

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

Virginia Symphony Orchestra
Falletta & Buechner
Regent University Theater, November 15, 2014
Review by M.D. Ridge

Imagine Salvador Dali in Brazil, and you’ve got a pretty good feel for Le Boeuf sur le Toit (The Ox on the Roof), the joyfully expressive work by Darius Milhaud that opened the Virginia Symphony program November 15 at the Regent University Theater. Its French composer had traveled extensively in Brazil and quoted freely from its lively folk dances, roaming from key to key, setting multi-rhythmic melodies at odds with each other, as in an absurdist dream. Conductor JoAnn Falletta “danced” on the podium, bringing out wonderful brass and woodwinds and a nice viola melody with infectious Latin rhythms. The work was originally written for a Charlie Chaplin movie that never came off—but the sparkling music lives on.

The soloist for the Concerto No. 1 in E Minor by Chopin was pianist Sara Buechner. As the orchestra began the first long movement, she sat quietly, hands moving on her knees—into the music before she ever started playing, then lifting her hands to the keyboard for declarative chords and ripples of descending arpeggios, her blonde, candyfloss hair bouncing with emphasis. Playing from memory— she has more than 100 concertos in her repertoire—she evoked a stronger, more muscular Chopin than we usually think of— at great speed, with forceful pedaling. The second movement, Romanze, was slower, with quiet, dreamlike delicacy, ending in a breathless hush.

The Rondo was bright and cheerful, with Buechner bouncing up and down on the bench, feet flying on and off the pedals— she’s a very physical player who uses her whole body to play, not just her hands. Falletta led the orchestra in bright, intelligent dialogue with the solo piano.

Buechner’s encore was a complete change of pace: a snazzy, jazzy arrangement of George Gershwin’s “Do, Do, Do,” after which the smiling orchestra members were on their feet.

Closing out the program was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in C Major, which launched Beethoven on the Viennese music scene. Haydn was already there, the foremost composer of his day, and Beethoven, like Mozart, was influenced by him. The young Beethoven had already written many works, but this first symphony declared him a composer to reckon with.

The first movement had a slow introduction, with rhythm forming the basis of melodic and harmonic motion, closing with declarative chords in basses and cellos. The second movement—Andante cantabile con molto—used unusual emphases in the violins and low strings, then woodwinds, in triple rhythm—very transparent, and very, very nice.

The Menuetto wasn’t what one thinks of as a minuet, all tinkly tinsel, but more of a gallop, with both delicacy and power, and intense strings. In the final movement, Adagio—Allegro molto e vivace— fragments of phrases were repeated and augmented, with bright, cheerful rhythms.

The program was well-suited to Regent’s theater, which is much smaller than Chrysler Hall. This creates a more intimate experience with the music—and I don’t think there’s a bad seat in the house.

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

Back to Top

Review Index

Home  Calendar  Announcements  Issues  Reviews  Articles Contact Us