Virginia Symphony: Sinfonia Concertante
Regent University Theater, March 14, 2015
Review by M.D. Ridge
At the Virginia Symphony concert at Regent University March 14, it seemed odd to see Amanda Armstrong in the concertmaster’s chair; where was Vahn Armstrong and principal cellist Michael Daniels? Where were oboist Sherri Lake Aguirre and bassoonist Laura Leisring? Ahh, that was it—the four were the soloists for Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante in B-flat Major, his only work of that type, playing one solo instrument against another in various conversational combinations.
Having as soloists the superb Virginia Symphony principals who are so used to playing with one another—who know how to breathe together—was a special treat.
In the Allegro movement, their interplay was sweetly inviting. Vahn Armstrong’s phrasing was just terrific. During their multiple cadenza, director JoAnn Falletta stood stock-still and let them fly—before bringing the orchestra in to complement them. The Andante movement had a songlike feel, ringing the changes on combinations of instruments, not to mention Sherri Lake Aguirre’s gorgeous oboe part. The final movement is marked Allegretto con spiritu, and there was plenty of spirit, for sure. Between impossibly fast bassoon runs, Laura Leisring seemed to be transfigured when not playing, just grooving on the music. Falletta was looking over her shoulder, and Armstrong was smiling back at her. Michael Daniels was concentrated throughout, grooving in a different way. It was musicmaking of a very high order indeed.
Falletta had commented in the pre-program talk that she rarely gets to conduct Bach, but this program began with Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major. The Overture had a bright, very clear sound in Regent’s relatively intimate theater. There was sonorous rhythm and melodies in the cellos and basses, busy upper strings and declarative brass and tympani. The second movement, Air, has come to be known as Air on a G String in a different arrangement; its melody sounded quite different—and utterly lovely—played by the whole string section. Falletta brought out the dynamics and restrained passion, to a beautiful ending.
The third movement consists of two Gavottes—delightful dances in 4/4 time (think “march and skip”) punctuated by tympani and brass. After the dactylic rhythms of the Bourrée, the final Gigue was jaunty and cheerful. Falletta gave the brass a bow, then the whole ensemble.
After the interval, the risers behind the orchestra filled up with the singers of the Virginia Symphony Chorus, singing Nänie by Brahms, an elegy for mixed chorus and orchestra, written in memory of an artist friend; it’s a setting of a poem by Friedrich Schiller that begins, “Even the beautiful must perish!” Falletta brought the singers in so subtly that their song rose up out of the orchestra like incense—simply gorgeous. An exposed entrance by the men’s section was less than crisp, but overall, the sound was entrancing, over a mutter of tympani and Debra Cross’s soaring flute, after which the orchestra swelled, with beautiful woodwinds at the end of the song.
The Symphony Chorus had been scheduled to sing another piece, but February’s snows had impacted rehearsal time—and you just don’t do this level of music with inadequate rehearsal. In its place, the Symphony substituted Mozart’s Symphony No. 3, called the Haffner after the family that commissioned its writing.
The bravura first movement featured skittering strings; in the second, the strings spun gently upward like smoke rings, delicate and elaborate. The bright Menuetto third movement was followed by the final Presto—quick and fizzy, with authoritative tympani and subtle silvery flute with happy musical surprises and intense dynamic shifts. Mind you, Mozart never feels like substitution—especially not when played with such joyful vigor.
This review was originally broadcast on WHRO 90.3 FM’s “From the other side of the Footlights.”
VAF: Bluebeard’s Castle
Chrysler Hall, April 18, 2015
Review by M.D. Ridge
Among the crown jewels in the Virginia Arts Festival’s 2015 lineup were the Virginia Symphony’s two performances April 18 and 19 of Bela Bartok’s one-act opera Bluebeard’s Castle, with sets by renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly.
Musically and visually it was a splendid production. Glass artist Dale Chihuly’s “sets” could be more accurately described as fantastic sculptural evocations of the beauties and horrors of Bluebeard’s dark, ominous castle.
The composer’s friend Béla Balázs wrote the libretto in Hungarian; it expands the rather grim fairytale by Charles Perrault into a psychological thriller.
Corey Lipman played the non-singing Bard, who introduced the story, warning that the imagination of the audience would be central.
There are only two characters: The Duke (Bluebeard himself) and his new fourth wife Judith, brought to life by the commanding assurance of bass-baritone Charles Robert Austin and the powerful soprano of Rebecca Nash. Judith has left her home and fiancée to marry the mysterious Duke with the blue-dyed beard (the glitter is a tad over the top) and live in his sunless, foreboding castle. He tells her the seven locked doors must never be opened, and asks her to love him, simply love him, and ask no questions. But she insists. Door by door, he asks if she’s afraid. She denies it. Door by door, he allows her to open them.
The doors are actually seven 14-foot black towers that pivot to reveal Chihuly’s sculptures. The first is the Torture Chamber—a forest of tall, glowing red spikes like enormous, deadly punji sticks—lethal, but beautiful. The second door is Bluebeard’s Armory, full of fire and explosions, with bulbous red elongated shapes twined with yellow spidery stems. Behind the third door is the Treasury, a dazzling fountain of long, bright golden glass; he says, “All these jewels will be yours.” The fourth door reveals the Garden, whose green and gold stems open into unearthly flowers; the fifth door represents Bluebeard’s Domain, or Kingdom—dark blue and purple shapes sinuously twining toward a dark sky.
When Judith opens the sixth door, she asks her husband what she’s seeing. It’s the Lake of Tears—long milky-pale droplet shapes that appear to be dripping on a lake of gleaming blood.
One by one, the changing light turns each revelation blood red. The images remain in the mind long after, brilliant and mysterious.
But Judith is not satisfied; she must have that final door opened. It reveals her husband’s three former wives, dressed tellingly in outfits of very different eras. One means dawn to him; one represents the brightness of noon; a third is dusk—and Judith realizes to her horror that she will be joining them as the dark of night, suspended with them between death and living.
The music is absolutely spectacular, demanding as much from the orchestra as from the two singers who are on stage the whole time. And under JoAnn Falletta’s flawless baton, the Symphony delivered all of its mystery and majesty.
There must be quite a small pool of sopranos who can both handle this score’s demands and sing in Hungarian. Though Rebecca Nash’s vocal performance was impressive, she was hampered by a style-less blue costume that made her look dowdy and dumpy, in unhappy contrast to Austin’s sardonic elegance. She sang the challenging music with ease, but her acting was completely unconvincing. Most unfortunately, there was zero chemistry between Nash and Austin—and if Bluebeard and his new wife don’t love each other so passionately that she flings aside everything she’s known, then . . . the center cannot hold.
The original 2007 production was a joint effort of Seattle Symphony and Chihuly’s Seattle studio.
A companion exhibit—Chihuly in the Garden—runs through June 7 at the Chrysler Museum of Art.
This review was originally broadcast on WHRO 90.3 FM’s “From the other side of the Footlights.”
Chrysler Hall, April 19, 2015
Review by John Campbell
Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (1911) was first performed in Budapest (1918) with a libretto by Béla Balázs (1881-1945) after a fairy tale by Charles Perrault. In a single act and with two characters of equal importance, soprano Rebecca Nash is Judith, the new wife. Led into his castle by bass-baritone Charles Robert Austin as Bluebeard, she finds seven locked doors and demands to know what lies behind each. The plot is an allegory and totally lacks action. Reluctantly he gives her the keys and door-by-door, she discovers evidence of his power: his armory, treasure room, and also his cruelty and distress.
The music offers lavish orchestral depictions influenced by Strauss’ tone poems and Hungarian folk music, with its exotic modes and scales and flexible speech-inflected rhythms. It offers a combination of Expressionist angst and Debussy-like lushness. The syllabic word-setting relates to Debussy: Judith’s distanced provocativeness reminds us of Mélisande while Bluebeard has elements of Arkel and Golaud.
In her excessive devotion Judith is confident in knowing the secrets of his past while failing to see the man that is in front of her. The audience is drawn into wanting to save her from herself. The rumor that he has killed his other wives heightens the psychological thrill of the journey into Bluebeard’s locked-in angst.
Bluebeard needs a woman to reassure him of her love. Initiating physical affection rather than joining the other wives would be a simple solution. The lovely, lyric baritone of Charles Robert Austin’s Bluebeard and his pleading requests of Judith did not give the impression of a monster but rather that of a lonely man who wants to be loved and accepted just as he is. His Wagnerian-voiced wife was bent on conserving the patterns of his past. I discussed this point with two mature women after the performance and they agreed.
Steve Brockman sees this one-hour performance as the third act of a three-act opera. The missing acts deprive us of a narrative arc and character development that would elucidate why Judith would leave her family and fiancé for a man of such grim reputation. Without that foundation he found this brief work intellectually and emotionally unsatisfying. We agree that Chihuly's sets are marvelous and work better than the traditional sets we've seen.
VAF Presents Disney Fantasia Live in Concert
Virginia Symphony Orchestra
Sandler Center, May 3, 2015
Review by John Campbell
The program was a sound spectacular in the warm, clear acoustic space of the Sandler Center. The music was by Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Stravinsky, Ponchielli, Dukas, Elgar, Respighi and the encore—the Saint-Saëns Finale of Carnival of the Animals. The visuals were a mix from Disney Fantasia, the 1940 original and the 2000 sequel.
The feature-length marriage of animation and classical music was a challenge for conductor Benjamin Rouse and the symphony players. Originally Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977), leading the Philadelphia Orchestra, paced the music which was then animated by Disney Studio. Stowkowski’s tempos were brisk and those tempos must be matched exactly by current orchestras to accompany the visuals. Happily it all worked superbly, playing to the most diverse audience I have ever seen in Sandler Center for the Performing Arts. Many seniors reliving joys of earlier experiences as children or as stoned young people seeing the re-release in the 1970s and parents with young children and every age between filled the hall.
There was laugh-out-loud humor in Bacchus tumbling downhill in the bucolic take on Greek mythology accompanied by the “Pastoral” of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, Allegro, allegro allegretto. By contrast the Firebird Suite (1918 version) by Stravinsky was the terrifying experience of an erupting volcano. The death and rebirth of the Spring Sprite with the help of her companion, the soulful-eyed elk, illustrated the full circle of natural life.
Behavior unbecoming a ballerina lampooned the 1938 film The Goldwyn Follies, combining low humor of high art danced to Amilcare Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours from the opera La Gioconda. This melody is familiar to many as the tune of the Grammy winning “Hello Mudduh, Hello Faddah" (A Letter From Camp) by Allen Sherman.
The full-length film came out of the realization by Walt Disney that a pricey stand-alone cartoon with Mickey Mouse as the star of Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice would not make money so he made it the centerpiece of what he called a full-length “Concert Feature” film.
After several lively dances from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite featuring nature in all four seasons, we saw a sequence cut from the 1940 film—a complete, unedited Clair de Lune by Debussy. Recorded by Stokowski, it offered a quiet segment for contrast; two herons in flight in the moonlight create a sustained, evocative, slightly mysterious mood.
Donald Duck, as the patriarch, got his chance in the spotlight in a retelling of the Noah’s ark story. All the animals in pairs offered frustration-inducing, humorous incidents that sorely tried Donald’s patience. The music is from Pomp and Circumstance by Sir Edward Elgar as arranged by Peter Schickele.
Ottorino Respighi’s Pines of Rome was featured in the 2000 film using then state-of-the-art computer animation combined with traditional hand-drawn sequences of a pod of flying humpback whales. To quote Roy Disney: “Certainly it is about hope and rebirth but there’s also a mystical quality to it that seems to transcend all that.”
Soundwise, Fantasia was ahead of its technological era. To get the full effect of the sound required movie theaters to have 8 separated speakers for surround sound. For the finale in live performance the spectacular soundspace had brass players strategically placed around the hall. It was spectacular! The only event in Sandler that we have heard of greater intensity was Evelyn Glennie with one snare drum that turned the entire theater into a single, throbbing instrument.
The encore was the Finale of Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saëns with an appropriate cartoon led by dancing pink flamingoes. A fine time was had by all, especially by yours truly - I had never seen Fantasia before.
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