VSO Intrigue Concerts
Roper Performing Arts Center, February 24, 2017
Regent University, February 25, 2017
Review M.D. Ridge

The Virginia Symphony put together an intriguing series of concerts for the last weekend in February. The first was Thursday at Crosswalk Community Church in Williamsburg, featuring Mozart’s Overture to The Abduction from the Seraglio, his Concerto No. 5 in A Major for Violin and Orchestra, and the Brahms Serenade No. 1 in D Major. I missed the Williamsburg concert, but the same program was played Saturday at Regent University. Both concerts went by the title of “Intrigue and Idyll.”

However, on Friday the 24th, under the title of “Intrigue and Exoticism,” the program swapped out the Brahms work for Maurice Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite. You wouldn’t think Mother Goose would be all that exotic—but it was.

Benjamin Rous was the energetic conductor for all three concerts. He said, “The Mozart violin concerto was the first piece of the puzzle that we had in place,” when planning the three concerts. He continued, “My mind kept returning to the ‘alla Turca’ style in the last movement, where the orchestra plays in the style of an Ottoman military march, which led me to the ‘intrigue’ of the twists and turns of the Abduction from the Seraglio.

Like last October’s concert at the Roper, there were special “Tweet seats” and the opportunity to tweet questions during the intermission to be answered later. While Rous was explaining special aspects of the music to come, he made good use of the pull-down screens with great video clips demonstrating his verbal descriptions.

Rous pointed out that the Abduction from the Seraglio was set in Turkey, then an exotic part of the Ottoman Empire, whose military bands, called Janissary bands, were very large and very loud, with heavy percussion. A video clip showed one of these bands, with a brightly uniformed drummer twirling his bass mallets in the air between beats. (I’d give a lot to see Rob Cross do that. In costume. But I digress . . .) One of the characteristics of Europe’s mania for everything Turkish included cymbals—called zil—and percussionist Tim Bishop explained that his own Ziljian cymbals may have been part of a jazz hi-hat in an earlier life. All of this was accompanied by the orchestra playing a few measures here and there as examples—so that when Mozart’s Seraglio Overture and Fifth Violin Concerto were played all the way through, the Turkish influence was readily apparent.

Associate concertmaster Yun Zhang was the soloist for the Mozart Concerto No. 5 in A Major. He received a well-deserved standing ovation at both the Roper and Regent concerts. His bright, clear sound shone in the ornaments of the first movement, with a long, satisfying cadenza. The slow, graceful Adagio was followed by the dancing Rondo. Yun Zhang’s lower register was as excellent as were his high, sweet notes—declarative, but without bombast.

I don’t know whether I would have recognized the “Janissary” feel of the last movement of the violin concerto had I not heard the previous night’s concert—and explanation—at the Roper. But now it’s indelibly planted in my brain.

The “Intrigue and Exoticism” concert at the Roper also featured the wonderful Mother Goose Suite. Ravel gave the Laideronnette movement an exotic, Oriental feel with pentatonic scales, xylophone and Christine Niehaus’s ethereal celesta. David Savige’s contrabassoon made the Beast come alive in “The Conversations of Beauty and the Beast.” The final “Fairy Garden” movement had a magical sound from celesta and harp glissandos—just lovely.

In the Regent concert, Mother Goose was replaced by the six movements of the Brahms Serenade No. 1 in D Major. The first had a wonderful bagpipe sound in the French horns and a great sweep of melodies to a bravura finish. The Scherzo gave tantalizing hints of the Pastoral Symphony that would not appear for twenty years. The sonorous lines and rich tones of the Adagio gave way to the two minuets that comprise the fourth movement. A robustly energetic scherzo was followed by a happy Rondo, which galloped along, slowed, broadened, until a clarion trumpet led to a satisfying ending. Bravo!

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

Virginia Symphony Orchestra: Verdi Requiem
Chrysler Hall, March 18, 2017
(also March 17, Ferguson & March 19, Sandler)
Review by M.D. Ridge

There aren’t enough synonyms for excellence in the thesaurus to adequately describe the performance of the Verdi Messa di Requiem (Requiem Mass), presented March 18 by the Virginia Symphony conducted by JoAnn Falletta, with the Symphony Orchestra Chorus and a quartet of superb soloists. Powerful and breathtaking are the only words that even come close.

It stands to reason that Verdi, that master of melody and drama, would have composed a Requiem Mass of sumptuous melodies, dramatic choral work and challenging solo parts. It was written to commemorate the death of Italian poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni at a time when women were not allowed to sing Catholic ritual music, yet the composer (who was an agnostic) wrote for two soprano soloists as well as tenor and bass, and included female voices as well as male voices in the double chorus. It was first performed in 1874 in Milan’s Church of San Marco—which did not allow applause. Since then, audiences have continued to make up for that lapse.

I haven’t heard a mezzo like Susan Platts since I last heard Frederica von Stade. Not that Platts sounds like von Stade—no, Platts sounds like herself, but that sound is extraordinary: pure, rich, beautiful, soaring, with a riveting simplicity of communication.

At first, soprano Jennifer Check had a rather wide vibrato singing full voice, but her voice warmed and smoothed out until, in the final movement, Libera me, she shone like the Hope Diamond. She and Platts made their “Recordare” duet utterly exquisite.

Tenor Charles Reid sounded Italian: that seamless joining of high and low registers with unforced, expressive, elegant emotional power—and that doesn’t come along every day.

Bass Kevin Dean’s performance lost nothing by not being flashy; it was majestic musicianship, solid, attentive to text and diction, and supportive of the other three voices.

It’s common to hear major choral works with soloists who may never have been in the same room before—and sound like it, unfortunately. This was definitely not the case with the Verdi Requiem soloists. The very different voices of the quartet stood out in solo passages, as they well should, but in twos and threes and fours, their voices were beautifully balanced and blended—a fairly rare phenomenon.

The double chorus—at least 100 voices—was superbly prepared by chorusmaster Robert Shoup. Their Latin diction was clear, and their dynamics pristine. One expects a double chorus to be at their best in full voice—and, of course, they were—but when pianissimo is called for, it’s quite astonishing that such a large group can sing so softly, as for the gentle “Requiem” in the initial movement and, later, in the Offertorio’s repeated “Abraham promisti et semini ejus.” The final Libera me movement ended with a repetition of “Libera me (Deliver me)” fading away moment by moment from a whisper into silence; it was stunning because it was so hushed, perfectly delineating the mood of the text.

Falletta’s conducting was energetic and vividly clear; she was in firm control of the score’s dramatically fluctuating dynamics, and brought out everything that orchestra and chorus had to give, deftly avoiding pitfalls and communicating her confidence that the superbly trained musicians and singers would create . . . magic. Brava, Maestra, brava!

The overall effect of the Verdi Requiem made it almost an injustice to praise separately the different elements—the soloists, the chorus, the orchestra, the individual musicians, the conductor—because the performance was so perfectly integrated. The sum was not just the total of the various parts, but a shared vision that drew the audience into the vision and made them part of its surpassing beauty.

Virginia Symphony: Pictures at a French Exhibition
Alon Goldstein, Guest Pianist
Ferguson Center, March 3, 2017
Also Chrysler Hall and Sandler Center
Review by M.D. Ridge

The dazzling Virginia Symphony program at the Ferguson March 3 was called “Pictures at a French Exhibition”—in which music by Claude Debussy, Camille Saint-Saens and Albert Roussel created a dream world of clouds and demigods.

The evening began with Debussy’s innovative symphonic poem, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. Debussy’s inspiration for the music was Stephane Mallarmé’s poem about a faun dreaming of the conquest of nymphs. This faun was definitely not a Disney Bambi but a mythological demigod, half man and half goat. Made into a short ballet, choreographed and danced by Vaslav Nijinsky, it was considered extremely shocking at the time.

Debra Wendells Cross’s solo flute set the simple but unforgettable opening theme, an odd descending and re-ascending scale, followed by swelling phrases for strings and harps that, rising and falling, blended together airily. Concertmaster Vahn Armstrong’s lovely sweet violin solo and Rob Cross’s pristine percussion rose from the orchestra and fell back into it, all under JoAnn Falletta’s graceful conducting.

Israeli pianist Alon Goldstein was the soloist for Saint-Saens’ challenging Concerto No. 2 in G Minor. Goldstein described it as “from Bach to Offenbach,” referring to the work’s progression from oratoric, church-like opening to passionate first movement and cheerful tarantella ending, but said his favorite is the second movement: “It’s lighthearted, a dialog back and forth with the orchestra—very tricky, and fun to play. The conversation between orchestra and the piano creates drama.” Asked if he had a favorite composer, he replied, “On March third, fourth and fifth, my favorite will be Saint-Saens!” and adds, “If it’s not my favorite, why would I do it?”

After his brief introductory remarks, he sat down and launched into the concerto—BOOM! He brought out the strong bass clearly—but without banging. The orchestra echoed phrases like an “Amen” assent. The light and playful phrases demonstrated remarkable clarity of articulation, even when his hands and fingers were moving so fast they seemed to blur! The left hand rippled, then turned dramatic. Playing from memory, at times his eyes would close and he became the music. The second movement began with a rumble of tympani and a skipping, lighthearted, wonderful melody went from orchestral voice to voice. Goldstein had a terrific combination of delicacy and power, yet even at speed, his hands were relaxed, even when crashing big bass chords. It was extraordinary.

The audience was cheering as he returned for an encore by Argentinean composer Alberto Ginastera—bravura bass, moving up to a melodic center, with interesting, subtle rhythmic variations, all at blinding speed, ending in glissandos zooming up and down the keyboard. Good thing he was playing from memory—no way did he have time to turn pages!

After the interval came Debussy’s Nocturnes, whose three movements of musical light and shade were inspired by a series of contemporary paintings by James McNeill Whistler. The first, “Clouds,” had delicate intensity, led by Beverly Kane Baker’s viola, and a six-note line that sounded like a quote from Afternoon of a Faun. The second, “Festivals,” was bright with brass and percussion. In the third, “Sirens,” the women of the Symphony Chorus (seated invisibly behind the orchestra) sang wordless “ahs” that rose and fell like the tide, beautifully balanced and full.

Albert Roussel’s Suite No. 2 from Bacchus et Ariadne was developed from his score for a two-act ballet. Ariadne, princess of Crete, awakes on the island of Naxos to realize that her lover Theseus, whom she had helped escape the Minotaur, has abandoned her. She despairs, but the charming wine god Bacchus saves her and marries her; they dance ecstatically and Ariadne becomes a goddess. The music is by turns stormy, then a cheerful, bright martial air, a skirl of flutes, slashing strings, chugging cellos. Falletta was bouncing up and down in her little wedge boots, calling up Baker’s viola solo, Vahn Armstrong’s violin, percussion, dropping into triple rhythm, then back to the joyful main theme.

Lloyd DeWitt, curator of the Chrysler Museum, gave a brief, enthusiastic introduction before the concert about the upcoming French exhibition at the museum beginning March 10—The Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec—with 123 works on paper and one Toulouse-Lautrec painting, on loan from the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

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

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