Monday, March 24, 2014

The British Arrived for a World Premiere with WCO

By Guest Blogger, Chuck Holdeman
Chuck is a regional composer of lyrical, contemporary classical music, including opera, orchestral music, songs, chamber music, music for film, and music for educational purposes.

On Sunday afternoon, March 23, the Wilmington Community Orchestra presented its The British Are Coming program at The Music School of Delaware in Wilmington. Its big splash was a World Premiere — a fairly rare experience for an amateur orchestra, the kind that plays for the love of it.  But indeed the composer is a professional: Dr. David Osbon, who had come from London to conduct his new work, a violin concerto written for local virtuoso Timothy Schwarz, also the orchestra's regular conductor.  Schwarz conducted the program's second half, which comprised most of the great British composer Sir Edward Elgar's masterpiece, The Enigma Variations.  Three variations were removed because of the enormous demands on rehearsal time to prepare the difficult violin concerto.

While the purpose of this blog is primarily to boost awareness of the rich artistic life of our community through reporting, there is also a side function — that of arts critic. This function is a traditional part of writing about the arts: Readers generally expect writers to offer an answer to, 'Well, how good was it?'  And that puts me in a tight spot because, in a word (six actually), I didn't like the new concerto.  At the same time, I am glad to report that many people did — many in the audience rose to their feet in appreciation, and there were many boisterous bravos!

Composer Osbon gave an extended, often humorous speech, along with conducting numerous excerpted examples of the music, to introduce his ambitious new work. He frequently used the descriptive word 'aggressive,' and indeed there was a lot of loud, high energy music. Even when calmer moments appeared, the composer seemed eager to return to the aggressive as soon as possible.  And the work was not a violin concerto in the usual sense, but rather an orchestral piece with many notes for the solo violin to play (some people say this about Stravinsky's violin concerto).  An exception was the virtuosic cadenza (violin alone) which featured swooping glissandi on one violin string while others sounded a gossamer background — an arresting novel effect. Still, the large quantity of fairly relentless rhythmic and tonal aggression in what is primarily a gestural compositional style was just not my cup of tea. (Perhaps I should also admit that I am not a fan of action movies.)  And I was reminded that I had a very similar reaction to a Philadelphia premiere, that of John Adams' City Noir with conductor Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic.  So, at least Osbon and the WCO are in good company, in terms of music I did not like!

I must credit Schwarz's skill and determination in the demanding solo part, and also credit the young percussion section, imported from the University of Delaware. The extensive and vigorous percussion writing had a unifying effect on the entire proceeding.

After intermission, The Enigma Variations were easier on the ears. The score is complicated, difficult in terms of both ensemble playing and playing in tune. Despite this, the conductor and orchestra communicated the music's tunefulness, harmonic richness, and great range of expression, from jauntiness to the sublime, especially in the ultra-romantic variation entitled Nimrod, which Elgar composed to honor his friend Jaeger. (Nimrod was a biblical hunter, and Jaeger is German for hunter.) Jaeger was the kind of friend (and Elgar's editor) who could convincingly say to the composer, 'keep going, keep writing,' even when Elgar was seriously assailed by doubts and discouragement.

Despite this mixed review, Schwarz, the orchestra, the Music School, and David Osbon are to be applauded for their ambition and dedication in presenting this program, which was plenty provocative. Osbon had visited and met the orchestra a year ago, and so his new concerto was a rigorous effort to feature the Wilmington Community Orchestra and its leader Timothy Schwarz.

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