Monday, April 11, 2016

An Much-Welcomed 'Spring Night' Courtesy of Delaware Symphony Orchestra

By Christine Facciolo

Myth, legend and a concerto featuring a most unlikely instrument filled the bill last weekend as the Delaware Symphony Orchestra (DSO) performed its Classic Series “Spring Night” at the Laird Performing Arts Center at The Tatnall School in Greenville.

This was also the occasion to honor Christopher Theofanidis, this year’s recipient of the DSO’s A.I. duPont Composer’s Award. Theofanidis, Professor of Composition at Yale University School of Music, is one of today’s most celebrated and sought-after composers. His orchestra concert work Rainbow Body is one of the most performed new orchestral works of the last 10 years, having been performed by more than 100 orchestras worldwide.

The concert opened with a performance of Theofanidis’s Dreamtime Ancestors, a 17-minute tone poem based on Australian aboriginal creation myths. Theofanidis, who spent time in Western Australia, developed a fondness for these stories while working on his oratorio “Creation/Creator” in 2015.

The stories hold that we are connected to our ancestors past and future through the land. Our ancestors made the land leaving behind remnants of their existence. That is why we feel connected to a certain place. Theofanidis’s tone poem calls the dream state an “all-at-once-time,” where there is no past present or future. He read a tone poem to introduce the audience to these concepts before his composition was performed.

The work unfolds in three movements. The first is called “Songlines.” These are the things our ancestors left on Earth, such as rivers and mountain ranges. The second movement is called “Rainbow Serpent.” This mythical character is common to all aboriginal tribes in Australia. As the serpent moved along the Earth, it left a rainbow in its wake. Its light represents the source of the sun. The closing movement “Earth Stone Speaks a Poem” tells us that even so-called dead objects have something to say.

Dreamtime Ancestors is a romantically lyrical piece of music with no sharp edges, a perfect vehicle for DSO players. Theofanidis has crafted a work that is both accessible yet rhythmically, melodically and texturally complex.

The piece opens with a horn fanfare followed by layers of strings punctuated by cymbal crashes. The initial theme recurs throughout the movement which concludes with a drum roll, cymbal crash as the strings fade out.

The strings own the second movement as their lingering sounds recall the halo effect left by the serpent as it slithered along the Earth. The energetic final movement opens with a clapboard sound (provided by principal percussionist William Kerrigan) after which the strings, then horns and winds join in. Principal flutist Kimberly Reighley offers a strong passage and the movement comes to a close with a resounding crash.

Dreamtime Ancestors was matched with a deserving rarity, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Tuba Concerto of 1954. The tuba did not gain membership in the symphonic orchestra until valves were perfected in the second decade of the 19th Century. Composers welcomed its profound timbre, but Vaughan Williams tapped into the soul of the instrument.

This is a serious concerto in three movements, complete with cadenzas in the first and third movements. In his pre-concert remarks, DSO Principal Tubist Brian Brown revealed he had studied with John Fletcher who made the seminal recording of the work under the baton of Andre Previn in 1972.

Brown delivered a performance that proved him a worthy successor. His tone was big, fat and buttery yet deft and delicate. The opening movement with its run-filled cadenza and the rapid finale were convincing even as they had their share of humor. But it was in the second movement, Romanza: Andante sostenuto, where Vaughan Williams is at his most pastoral and for those few minutes Brown made you believe his instrument is the most beautiful in the orchestra. To be moved to tears by a tuba was indeed a rare pleasure.

After intermission, the orchestra took up works by Modest Mussorgsky (1839-81) and Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971).

Mussorgsky (1839-81) was one Russian committed to making music based on his country’s folklore, rather than the refined manners of 18th Century France or Italy. His Night on Bald Mountain, composed in 1867, evokes a witches’ Sabbath on Mount Tiglav, near Kiev. So violent and strident were its harmonies and instrumentation that it shocked fellow Russian nationalist Rimsky-Korsakov, who felt compelled to purge the score of those atrocities following Mussorgsky’s death. He even tacked on a conclusion designed to bring the work into line with contemporary standards of piety.

Nothing got lost in this performance, though, as DSO Music Director David Amado drew out the shocking elements retained in the score. There was nothing refined or stylized about this performance. This was pure Mussorgsky. Punctuation by one of the Bells of Remembrance just added to the authenticity of the performance.

Furthermore, if not for Rimsky-Korsakov’s serene conclusion, we would have been deprived of Charles Salinger’s superb clarinet solo and Kimberly Reighley’s mesmerizing flute solo in the composition’s closing minutes.

Following was a knockout performance of Stravinsky’s Petroushka. This centerpiece of ballets written for Serge Diaghilev tells the story of the lonely of the sad puppet Petroushka and his said demise.

Amado led an extraordinary performance that brought out all the colors of Stravinsky’s kaleidoscopic score: the hectic opening of the Shrovetide Fair in all its exuberance; Petroushka’s pathos and his rage against the machine; the Moor’s bizarre dance with the ballerina and the eerie code with the ghost of Petroushka thumbing his nose at the magician.

Especially noteworthy were contributions from (again) flutist Reighley, trumpet Brian Kuszyk, clarinetist Salinger and pianist Lura Johnson.


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