Live Recording Session of Music by Adolphus Hailstork

The invitation came in the mail: “The President of Norfolk State University requests the pleasure of your company at an exclusive live recording session featuring the Virginia Symphony Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta performing the music of Adolphus Hailstork, Wednesday, May 18, 2011 at 8 pm, Norfolk State University, Douglas Wilder Performing Arts Center.” The third underwriter was Virginia Arts Festival with the NSU and VSO logos at the bottom of the invitation. This is to be Virginia Symphony's first CD for the Naxos label. Dr. Hailstork was present. Tim Handley recorded and will produce the CD for Naxos.

Dr. Hailstork, who currently teaches at Old Dominion University, has been a part of our musical life since before we began Artsong Update. Along the way I have reviewed his art songs on many recital programs by Tidewater's finest singers, his choral works and a CD of his piano music and, with his cooperation, compiled and published a complete list of his art songs still on our website.

It was with great anticipation for a special evening that we came to Wilder Hall to share with a number of our musical friends and others his orchestral music. The program opened with the glorious Fanfare on Amazing Grace (2003) originally written for VSO. The folk song had its roots in a voyage of a slave ship from Africa with a courageous captain who turned the ship around so he could free his captives. It was joyful from the first measure. Next came An American Port of Call (1984) also written for VSO. It is a coloristic travelogue with trumpets announcing the arrival in Norfolk harbor. In the orchestra I heard ship's horns, waves, city street sounds and hints of Gershwin music from a cabaret. The extroverted energy in the first two selections set the mood for the evening.

The first, allegro, movement of his Symphony No.1 (1988) is rhythmically complex with passages that create a sense of great urgency. The lento ma non troppo second movement was lyrical but energetic. The gentle passages had an undertone of a probing musical exploration. In the scherzo: allegro movement the bows seemed to take flight like mosquitoes, dancing where strings were only touched lightly. Sometimes the effect was stately, at other times whimsical. The finale, vivace, opened with a brief fanfare of brass colors moving at a steady, fairly rapid pace. The music was exhilarating!

After intermission Maestro Falletta spoke, emphasizing the important part Dr. Hailstork has played in the life of the Virginia Symphony in the thirty-four years he has been in Hampton Roads. She spoke about the performance of his Piano Concerto for orchestra played at VSO's appearance at Carnegie Hall. She encouraged us to see the green and gold of the NSU logo and remember that several pieces played tonight were written while he was still teaching at NSU. She offered a heartfelt thanks to him, the university and the symphony players before she conducted Three Spirituals (premier recording) for orchestra.(2005).

The first part, Everytime I Feel the Spirit has a call and response opening. Woodwinds seem to be the voice of the spirit until the flute takes over. The music has the exuberance of a revival meeting. Kumbayah, the second section, opens with a quiet statement of the familiar tune in the horns. The long-held oboe note is embellished by other instruments, closing this section. Deep brass voices declare Oh, Freedom. Drums, trombones and trumpets have their say, creating colors and contrasts through the third section. The basses have a “heavy elephant dance sonority” throughout this section. All very satisfying!

With text in the program we heard Launch out on endless seas (premier recording), a celebration of the American spirit with poetry by Walt Whitman and music by Adolphus Hailstork. Written in 2005 and premiered by Don McCullough and his Washington Master Chorale in 2006, Launch out on endless seas is the first section of a sixty-minute work, Whitman's Journey. Dr. Hailstork carefully selected text from several poems by Whitman, building a text that gave him noble, lofty, ecstatic words to enhance with his equally ecstatic music. The result was great jubilation filling us with a sublime, triumphant joy.

Kevin Deas is an up-and-coming American bass and was backed by some eighty-five singers of the Virginia Symphony Chorus. Capturing the sense of occasion in words is limited, I will try, but we all can hope for another performance soon. Until the CD is released you only have my word for the glories of the piece. Later we learned from two VSC singers about the difficulty of the music and how much time was spent on each small section.

We will leave you with the closing lines from the Whitman Poem of Joy. The women of the chorus sing “O for the sunshine, and the motion of waves in a song!” The bass answers “O the joy of my spirit is uncaged! It darts like lightning! It is not enough to have this globe, or a certain time.” Then the entire chorus sings “Forward! O to make the most jubilant song!” and they did.

Philippe Bianconi, soloist
September 17, 2011
Chrysler Hall

by M.D. Ridge for Artsong Update

American audiences have long succumbed to the charms of beguiling Frenchmen — such as Charles Boyer, Alain Delon and Louis Jourdan — but handsome Philippe Bianconi captured all hearts at the Virginia Symphony season opener at Chrysler Hall September 17 with his brilliant performance of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30, with conductor Joann Falletta.

The “Rach Three” is an extraordinary challenge for pianists, requiring dazzling technique at breakneck speed. It seems incredible that the composer, who wrote it in 1909 to astound audiences during his first concert tour of the United States, didn’t have time to practice it on a real piano, only on a “silent” keyboard during the transatlantic sea journey to America. It was popularized by Vladimir Horowitz. Shine, the 1996 film based on the life of Australian pianist Joseph Helfgott, seemed to blame the symphony itself for Helfgott’s breakdown; chalk it up to movie-making hyperbole.

Its first theme was stated in octaves, then multiplied, becoming more and more complex, with rippling arpeggios and vehement chords. The gorgeous flute of Debra Wendells Cross, Patti Carlson’s clarinet and mellow horns enhanced a quiet solo section. The Intermezzo movement began with the orchestra’s strings and woodwinds before the piano’s statement: first strong, then lyrical, then powerful again. Rachmaninoff’s writing contrasts power and flexibility, drama and lyricism, all at the same time. Playing from memory, Bianconi was more than equal to those demands. In the final movement, he displayed blinding speed, effortless rippling passages and great power, matched by Falletta’s impeccable baton. The audience leapt to its feet, cheering like partisan fans at a football match. His encore, Consolation 3, by Liszt, was very Chopin-like, very different from the Rachmaninoff: Bianconi’s fingers stroked the keys as if they were velvet.

The evening had begun with Franz Schmidt’s Intermezzo, from his opera Notre Dame, based on Victor Hugo’s novel. The once-popular opera has dwindled into obscurity, but instrumental excerpts remain. Composed separately and later interwoven into the opera’s first act, Intermezzo evoked the gypsy Esmeralda, with two harps and rich strings leading the movie-score-like melody while trumpets blared up and faded back.

In the Brahms Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90, the first movement was full of light and dancing (after an awkward first note), with overlapping waves of great Brahms sonorities. The second movement had a quiet melody that sounded almost like a folk tune, in the reeds and woodwinds, as the strings swirled languidly to a quiet ending. In the unusual poco allegretto movement, the melodic theme, restated by horns and deep woodwinds, was met with applause. The somber, portentous, dramatic Finale had the violas, ably led by Beverly Kane Baker, singing again the great theme before fading to a peaceful ending.

I wish I were more of a fan of the symphony’s rear-projection cameras and double screens. At their best, they can make visible something that’s hard to see from the audience, like Bianconi’s cross-hand technique; but they also lay bare somethings that are distracting. The picture is very slightly fuzzy; the color values are off; and such technology seems more distracting than helpful.

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