Orchestral Music Review Print

Magnificent Mandolin and Marvelous Strings in Winston-Salem Symphony Concert

March 16, 2010 - Winston-Salem, NC:

Maestro Robert Moody led a chamber-size Winston-Salem Symphony in a charming and pleasing concert at the Stevens Center of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in downtown Winston-Salem. The concert posts the kitschy sub-title, “Miraculous Mandolin,” a pun on Béla Bartók’s grotesquely macabre ballet, “the Miraculous Mandarin,” to highlight the guest soloist, Chris Thile, who turns out to be a stupendous mandolin player. Even “Marvelous Mandolin” or “Magnificent Mandolin” or “Machiavellian Mandolin” would understate the abilities of this young performer, probably more widely known for his participation in the bands, Nickel Creek and The Punch Brothers, but well at home in the intricacies of Bach and the world of symphonic music.

The evening opened with a spirited and well-played performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F which brought acclaim to Anita Cirba, playing the high piccolo trumpet as though it were a flute, but with the unmistakable timbre of the trumpet. In fact, the real flute part was played by Kathryn Levy with elegance and subtlety.

This secular work by Bach is one of six Brandenburg Concertos for various groups of instruments, in this case oboe and violin in addition to the already mentioned flute and trumpet. Amanda LaBrecque was our oboe soloist with her warm dark tone and Fabrice Dharamraj the excellent violinist, whom we occasionally had to struggle to hear above the trumpet. However, the martial trumpet only plays the first and last of the three-movement piece, allowing the oboe, violin and flute to weave their sinuous themes together over the excellent basso continuo (accompaniment in Baroque music) of Brooks Whitehouse on cello and Nancy Johnston on harpsichord (using the lute stop), during the Andante. All four soloists are members of the orchestra.

The 20-piece string section swelled to 30 for the Serenade for Strings, Op. 48 by Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and the warm energetic tone filled the Stevens Center for half an hour of the best playing of the WSSO’s season to date. Moody was forceful (almost angrily so at the beginning of the first movement) yet did not inhibit the natural musicality of this great group of musicians. The lilting waltz (second movement) set heads swaying in the balcony and the tender Adagio was especially moving after an extended quasi-cadenza in the first violins led to a pregnant pause… and the most touching ppp of the evening, a dramatic coda and a sublime closing chord in harmonics. The Finale, in a duple meter for a change (the other movements are in triple meter) was energetic and boisterous, finally leading to a reprise of the opening movement and coda.

What to say of Chris Thile as a composer?  The Concerto for Mandolin (Ad astra per alas porci) (trans. To the stars on the wings of a pig) was not what this writer expected. It is fairly long, fairly dissonant, and fairly loud, often using the mandolin in a more percussive than melodic manner. The first movement (of three) opens with a steady thumping which moves through the orchestra with almost no let-up (except a couple of 3/8 and mixed meters), as inexorable as the beginning of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. The high point of the first movement is the two consecutive cadenzas for mandolin at the end of the movement; these soared on wings distinctly not porcine.

The second movement began with the conductor clearly conducting a faster tempo – but the distance between musical events gave the aural impression of a slow movement. The third movement begins with a cadenza for mandolin and finally, real contrast – the strings have some fast runs, occasionally only the first chair players, sometimes whole sections and some contrapuntal writing. This movement was exciting and dissipated the monotony that had begun to settle over us like T.S. Eliot’s yellow fog. It ends abruptly!

The whole work, while interesting at many times, seemed to lack continuity and cohesion. While he succeeded in avoiding a stew of obvious chunks of Bluegrass and classical (his analogy), Thile has not yet perfected his recipe for une sauce veloutée (a smooth velvety sauce). Three encores - a ballad, an excerpt from Bach’s B Minor Partita for violin and a lightning-fast bluegrass song - brought down the house.

There was a disconnect between the sight of the young and engaging soloist with his instrument strapped to his chest and the amplified mandolin sound which emerged from the house speakers 30 feet over his head. This contributed to the imbalance of the mandolin versus the orchestra, which was often too loud when both played together. The best amplification of a plucked instrument I have heard used a pair of speakers on the floor, directly behind the soloist with only an added whisper over the house system.

I am always pleasantly surprised by the acoustics in the balcony of the Stevens Center, and prefer to sit there, as did the largest crowd of the season. Unfortunately it is impossible to read the program notes before the concert or during intermission (half an hour this time) because there is insufficient light. Balconeers are resorting to bringing LED flashlights, and more and more are using their cell phones to illuminate their programs. And the W-S Symphony has compounded the problem by using a small font in the notes. Help!