Emotions ran high last week as the Delaware Symphony Orchestra closed its 2015-2016 season — The Season of the Bells — at The Grand Opera House in Wilmington.
Maestro David Amado conducted a program that offered just two works. But when one of those works features the gut wrenching emotionality of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11, anything more would have felt like overload.
The concert opened with David Ludwig’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, with Bella Hristova as soloist. The semi-programmatic piece which was commissioned by an eight-orchestra consortium — including the DSO — celebrates Ludwig’s marriage to Hristova. Its three movements recount the wedding ritual (preparation, ceremony, celebration) within the broader themes of partnership, empathy and communion.
Ludwig invested the work with captivating moments and effects: asymmetrical rhythms, loping harmonies, ascending glissandi as well as unusual timbral combinations.
The work opens with a violin exclamation and everything a symphony orchestra can throw at it to signify transformative power of love and commitment before progressing to various Eastern-European style dances. The music builds to a brilliant raucousness, blending virtuosic cadenzas with warm lyricism.
The second movement opens with a tender melody in the solo violin that blossoms and grows joyful. This section serves as a touching tribute to the father Hristova never knew, Soviet-era composer Yuri Chichkov. Ludwig tracked down a rare copy of the violin concerto Chchkov wrote decades ago and incorporated an excerpt into this movement as a tribute to family.
Finally, the third movement “Festival” is as about as bacchanalian as a wedding reception can get. Bulgarian dances with their fluctuating rhythms run rampant, including Ludwig’s own version of the “Crooked Dance,” which mimics how the less-than-sure-footed revelers attempt to make their way home.
Hristova is one of today’s most celebrated artists with a superb technique and a sumptuous sound. Not surprisingly, she invested this performance with a sense of the whole, while balancing fiery virtuoso and deep passion with a sensitivity and softness.
Political passion consumed the second half of the program which featured Shostakovich’s massive Symphony No. 11, which premiered in 1957. The symphony is subtitled The Year 1905, a reference to the failed Russian revolution of that year. Critics initially dismissed the work as little more than glorified film music. Many now consider it to be more reflective in attitude, one that looks back on Russian history from the standpoint of 1957. Another interpretation views the symphony as a response to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the composer’s widow has stated that he did in fact “have it in mind” during its composition.
Lasting more than an hour, the symphony consists of four movements played without pause. Each movement bears a descriptive title relating to the revolution. The brooding first movement “The Palace Square” readily conveys the tension of the gathering workers, whose massacre is the subject of the feverish second movement “The 9th of January.” The third movement “In Memoriam” is deeply meditative while the finale, “The Tocsin,” sizzles with excitement.
Amado and the DSO performed this difficult piece with heart-wrenching emotion and cinematic sweep. The strings invested just the right amount of melancholy in the slow movements while the brass, winds and percussion brought drama and tension to the fast movements, especially the finale with its floor-shaking bass drum, crashing cymbals and tam-tam and cataclysmic tolling of the Bells of Remembrance.
It was a masterful rendition that kept the audience on the edges of their seats during the performance and brought them to their feet at its conclusion.