Fountains of Rome

Enigma Variations



VSO: Violinist Sarah Chang

Chrysler Hall, September 19, 2015
Review by M.D. Ridge

The September 19 Virginia Symphony concert at Chrysler Hall began with the announcement that conductor JoAnn Falletta would celebrate her 25th year with the VSO in February 2015—and earlier that day, the Pilot reported that Falletta had signed a new five-year contract. So it was fitting that Falletta was seated onstage as Resident Conductor Benjamin Rous led a spirited performance of Grammy-winning composer Joan Tower’s energetic Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman. (Of the five versions dedicated to “women who are adventurous and take risks,” Tower—a conductor herself—dedicated the fourth version to Falletta.)

Falletta then took the podium for a rousing, evocative performance of Samuel Barber’s Overture to The School for Scandal. As rich with humor as Sheridan’s comedy of manners, the overture opened with a blast of dissonance, then quick, light phrases developed into soaring melodies. The oboe theme, later reprised by English horn, was achingly lovely. Quick, playfully busy phrases were like the tattling tongues of the play’s gossips. It was Barber’s first work for orchestra, written in 1931 when he was still a student; it wasn’t performed for another two years, but by the 1950s it was practically a staple. (It often takes a long time to become an overnight success.)

Former child prodigy Sarah Chang has matured into an exciting performer with both emotional intensity and technical proficiency. She chose to perform Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story Suite for Violin and Orchestra, arranged for her by Hollywood composer David Louis Newman. One of the prolific dynasty of Hollywood composers, David Newman is the son of Alfred, brother of Thomas, nephew of Lionel, and cousin of Randy. He has composed music for more than 100 feature films himself—which may be the problem. In a film score, it’s easy to solo out an instrument; but although Falletta was working consistent miracles creating the orchestral equivalent of “holes” for violin to sing through, at times Chang’s lovely singing tone was hard to hear, even though her bow hairs were flying. Chang also has an odd habit of doing a near-backbend in moments of passionate playing, which not only looks rather startling but projects the instrument’s sound upward into the rafters. The ardent “Maria” featured dazzling proficiency, of course, and the tender love duets “I Have a Dream” and “There’s a Place for Us” were played with beauty and simplicity. The percussion section was spot on for the dazzling, intricate rhythms of “Mambo,” leading to a big finish that had the orchestra players tapping their bows happily.

Chang returned with Tzigane, a rhapsody for violin and orchestra by Maurice Ravel; its gypsy melodies and rhythms showcased Chang’s mastery of its demands. Its solo opening cadenza had a haunting voix humaine quality that she wisely didn’t overdo. The orchestra was equal to her fiery technical display, coming in like musical rain at one point, as subtly gorgeous as a Renoir painting. Chang was undaunted by Ravel’s challenges, ranging up to impossibly high notes and down to impossibly low ones, racheting up the speed with finesse and crouching intensity, dancing on the precipice right up to the end.

There was no solo encore.

The second half of the program was the Symphony No. 2 in D Major by Brahms. The pastoral beginning of the first movement uses the melody of Brahms’s Wegenlied (which we know as his lullaby) developing into power punctuated by lightness, boldness alternating with tenderness. The audience broke into applause at the end of the movement.

In the Adagio movement, Falletta was intense, the strength of her baton calling up intensity like the wind whipping up waves, ending peacefully like the end of a storm. The dancing motif of the third movement had a folk tune quality—light and scurrying, like leaves in the wind. The final Allegro con spirito movement was both grand and tuneful, not to mention a workout for the timpanist. Falletta tied all its grand statements and vigor together, moving toward its triumphant end.

Bravo, Maestra! We look forward with great pleasure to five more years!

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

VSO: Fountains of Rome

Sandler Center, October 18, 2015
Review by M.D. Ridge

At their October 18 concert the Virginia Symphony members were crammed onto the stage at the Sandler in Virginia Beach— but the music they produced was worth any discomfort.

In the first half, Ottorini Respighi’s tone poem, The Fountains of Rome, was accompanied by wonderfully evocative black-and-white photographs by David A. Beloff. The four sections, performed consecutively, began with The Fountain of Valle Giulia at Dawn. The music, like falling water, eddied and changed with the photographer’s closeups of the turtle spouts around the circumference of the fountain.

A great, sweeping sound of horns signaled The Triton Fountain in the Morning. Precise percussion, bold brass and two harps evoked Triton blowing a conch shell, from which water spurted; four dolphins formed a central plinth, holding up the sea-god, decorated with the papal beehive headdress and the bees symbolic of the Barberinis.

The Trevi Fountain at Midday is perhaps the most familiar sight, even to those who have not visited Rome— it’s the elaborate main feature in two movies, Three Coins in the Fountain and La Dolce Vita. The central figure is the god Ocean, the personification of the great river around the earth from which flow all the streams. Respighi’s music — and a wonderful tuba— evoked the great flowing cascades of Nicola Salvi’s magnificent design for Pope Clemens XIII.

The Fountain of the Villa Medici at Sunset is calmer, with rounder lines; its water rises from a central globe and flows over the edge of the bowl. The photographer captured the melancholy of leaves in the water; gentle woodwinds captured the elegiac mood. (The last photograph was of Beloff’s shadow on the fountain.) Conductor JoAnn Falletta brought the Virginia-based photographer out for a well-deserved bow.

When composer William Walton was at Oxford, he met the literary Sitwell family; later, Osbert Sitwell created the libretto for Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, for chorus, solo baritone and orchestra. The biblical story is taken from the book of Daniel. The Jews were in exile; the arrogant Babylonian king Belshazzar had a great feast for a thousand of his lords, wives and concubines, and commanded the sacred gold and silver vessels from the Jerusalem temple to be handed out to the crowd, who drank from them, praising pagan gods. A hand appeared, writing words on the wall— Mene, Mene, Tekel Upharsin which was translated: “Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting.” That night, Belshazzar was slain, and the Jews rejoiced at the fall of Babylon.

The soloist was bass-baritone Charles Robert Austin, who was so elegantly commanding in the Virginia Arts Festival’s April production of Bluebeard’s Castle. His huge voice, which could be heard clearly even against the full chorus at full volume, was no less impressive in this outing, and he maintained the stern look of an Old Testament prophet.

A trombone introduced the words of Isaiah in recitative style by the chorus, with a counterintuitively soft “Howl ye, howl ye.” The plaintive longing of the exiles— “By the water of Babylon . . . we wept”— contrasted with the harshly mocking command, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

Austin intoned a text from Psalm 137, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem.” The chorus answered with the dire threat, “O daughter of Babylon.” Austin, a cappella, sang of the great city of Babylon, cataloging its long list of riches. In describing Belshazzar’s feast, the chorus underscored the sacrilege of using the sacred temple vessels for such a profane event. A brass fanfare preceded Austin’s invocations of pagan gods— the Gods of Gold, of Silver, Iron— with harsh percussion clanking at each element.

As the celebrating pagans, the chorus exulted, “O King, live forever.” Then Austin described the hand that appeared, writing a mysterious message of doom on the wall — and Belshazzar was slain that night. The chorus responded in a joyful, almost Gershwinesque praise of Israel’s God, with blaring trumpets. Suddenly the instruments fell silent, and the chorus was particularly lovely in the section “and the light of a candle shall shine no more.” A chorus of Alleluias, repeated and repeated, soared into a high, explosive ending. The riveting dynamics of both the well-prepared chorus and the well-conducted orchestra were simply stunning.

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

VSO: Enigma Variations
Chrysler Hall, October 31, 2015
Review by M.D. Ridge

There were folks in costume and strange, beaky masks at the Virginia Symphony’s October 31 concert at Chrysler Hall—well, it was Halloween, after all. (I had just put out a little table with a biggish bowl of candy and left, hoping for the best.)

First on the program was EscalesPorts of Call, by Jacques Ibert, an evocative three-movement work inspired by the Mediterranean ports he had visited while serving in the navy in World War I. In the first movement, Rome-Palermo, Debra Cross’s soft flute set a languorous mood, followed by scurrying trumpets, and returning again to the languorous melody. The second movement—Tunis-Nefta—featured Sherie Aguirre’s sensuous oboe; cellos and basses provided percussive rhythms. (Nefta is an oasis town in Tunisia, close to the Algerian line; it borders on a large inland lake, inaccessible to naval ships, but the composer might have visited on his own.) Valencia, the final movement, was full of Spanish melodies and rhythms, including subtle castanets and full-on brass for an impressive ending.

The Nashville Symphony—and a consortium of the orchestras of Asheville, Detroit, El Paso, South Florida, the Redwood Symphony, the Erie Philharmonic and the Virginia Symphony—co-commissioned Grammy-winning composer Michael Daugherty’s Tales of Hemingway, a concerto for cello and orchestra, which premiered in Nashville in April. Cellist Zuill Bailey, who was the soloist, had worked extensively with the composer for two years before premiering the work. The very tall Daugherty was present for the Virginia premiere, looming over JoAnn Falletta and beaming at the orchestra.

The four movements bore the titles of Ernest Hemingway’s stories. Big Two-Hearted River was an early story about a wounded soldier seeking spiritual renewal on a fishing trip in Northern Michigan; the orchestra brought out the elegiac beauty of communing with nature. Bailey plumbed its low notes, its double stops and harmonics in a weird glissando all the way up the cello’s neck.

For Whom the Bell Tolls was a tale of the Spanish Civil War—Hemingway always wanted to be where the action was, in love and war. Daugherty’s music was powerful, with a striking pizzicato, during which Bailey used his hand percussively against the body of the instrument, while the orchestra crescendoed into. . . silence.

The Old Man and the Sea was a Hemingway novella about an old fisherman in a life-and-death struggle with a giant fish. The music was pensive, with eerie glissandos. Principal bassoonist Laura Leisring had a lovely duet with the cello.

The final movement, The Sun Also Rises, references Hemingway’s fascination with bullfighting, bringing in Spanish rhythms, with Bailey plucking his cello like a guitar, and creating a high, sweet, singing tone in a lovely lyrical passage with the orchestra, and a striking climax.

If all you know of Sir Edward Elgar is the Pomp and Circumstance Marches, that’s a shame—because his Variations on an Original Theme, called the Enigma Variations, is a splendid and moving work. After the introductory theme, there are 14 variations that the composer said was a countermelody to a very familiar tune—the name of which he never revealed and which remains a mystery. But it could have been one of Elgar’s jokes, too.

The variations are named after the composer’s wife, several friends (many of them musicians too), Elgar himself—even a friend’s dog—and depict the subjects' personality and, often, a specific event. And the whole piece is dedicated to “the friends pictured within.” Probably the most popular variation is number 9, “Nimrod,” a sweepingly emotional adagio that memorializes Augustus J. Jaeger, Elgar’s music editor who encouraged him during a period of depression. Variation 6 (Ysobel) is a charming, romantic movement describing a viola pupil of the composer’s; Beverly Kane Baker played it with great beauty.

There’s not enough time to go through every movement, but think of a wonderful party, with unusual, interesting people, their different conversations rising and falling, observed by a generous, caring host. Conductor JoAnn Falletta and the Virginia Symphony brought it all to sweeping, evocative life.

Or you could do what I did when I first heard the Enigma Variations—bought a good CD and listened to it obsessively in the car for weeks. And it’s still surprising. But live music is the best.

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

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