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The Western Piedmont Symphony's third Masterworks concert was titled "Sonic Boom" for good reason. Generously sponsored by Mike and Sheree Watson, the program featured double organ soloists Kenneth Miller, a doctoral candidate at Yale, and his former teacher Florence Jowers playing particularly rousing organ-and-orchestra works with plenty of volume and excitement.
The performance opened with a rousing reading of Rossini's Overture to William Tell. While the slower moments could have benefited from a bit more indulgence on the part of Maestro John Gordon Ross, the giddy-up and go tempo fit well with the high energy level of the works to follow. The rest of the program took full advantage of the impressive organ at the First Baptist Church of Hickory, with Joseph Jongen's Symphonie Concertante for Organ and Orchestra, Op. 81, and Saint-Saëns' "Organ" Symphony (No. 3) in C minor, Op. 78, making up the majority of the program.
The four movements of Jongen's Symphonie Concertante are clearly structured on the different musical strengths of organ literature and of the instrument itself. The piece begins with a fugue, and then moves to a metrically complex second movement. The third movement highlighted timbre changes in both the organ and the orchestra, while the fourth was a bombastic and exciting toccata that made the pews shake. Kenneth Miller, the soloist, shone the most in the impressionistic and delicate third movement, bringing out the variety in timbre that was the highlight of that movement.
Saint-Saëns' "Organ" Symphony is always an exciting piece to see and hear live; it is one of those marvelous works for which a recording cannot possibly do justice. While the difficult inner movements of this performance suffered from a few moments of disconnect, the orchestra and soloist Florence Jowers recovered gracefully. Jowers and Maestro Ross pulled out all the stops – literally and figuratively, respectively – to make the powerful last movement an overwhelming deluge of sound.
There were two factors that detracted from the full enjoyment of the performance. While the church provided a wonderful instrument and a lovely space to perform in, the accompanying acoustics significantly dampened any attempt at clarity or articulation. Another issue was one of balance. The brass section – and sometimes the percussion as well – does tend toward the overbearing regardless of performance space. Unless the orchestra can afford at least another stand of string players in all four sections, some dampening of brassy enthusiasm might be in order; it would be nice to hear the second violins on occasion. Unfortunately the acoustics of the space likely exacerbated the problem, and the addition of a large organ did not help matters either.
Some highlights, however, are equally worth noting. WPS's woodwinds have improved tremendously from a year ago; transparent passages no longer need be approached with the same level of trepidation. On the contrary, the solo parts for this section were quite sensitively performed. Also of note to regular WPS fans is an upcoming change. The orchestra is looking for a new quartet in residence and took a potential ensemble out for a test drive this evening. The Aeolus Quartet and the orchestra both appeared more or less at ease with each other. We shall see if – and hope that – Aeolus' stay in the Western Piedmont will be of longer duration.
The Western Piedmont Symphony has more events coming up soon; for details, see our calendar.