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The Western Piedmont Symphony opened its 2010-2011 season with a concert titled “Things That Go Bump in the Night” at J. E. Broyhill Civic Center. The title, of course, foreshadows the coming of All Hallows Eve in about three weeks, and the concert featured three works that use the theme of the thirteenth century Latin hymn "Dies irae" ("Day of Wrath"). The traditional Gregorian melody has been used as a musical quotation in more than fifty classical works.
The orchestra also welcomed its new resident quartet, the Kontras Quartet, whose members occupy the principal string chairs. Hailing from the four corners of the globe are Dmitri Pogorelov, Concertmaster, from Russia, Francois Henkins, Principal Second Violin, from the Republic of South Africa, Ai Ishida, Principal Viola, from Japan, and Jean Hatmaker, Principal Cello, from the United States.
The program opened with “Danse Macabre,” Op. 40, by Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921). Originally an art song for voice and piano, the composer reworked the piece as a tone poem for orchestra, replacing the vocal line with a solo violin. It pictures “Death” at Halloween calling up the dead from their graves to dance for him while he plays his violin until the cock crows at dawn, when they must return to their graves for another year. The violin solo was hauntingly and mournfully played by Dmitri Pogorelov with great beauty and sadness. The orchestra accompanied with great energy and the strings sounded especially lush.
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43, by Sergei Rachmaninoff, for piano and orchestra, was composed after his four piano concertos, and could actually be considered a fifth concerto. It is a set of twenty-four variations based on Niccolo Paganini’s (1782-1840) Caprice XXIV for solo violin. The variations are grouped into three sections which roughly correspond to the movements of a conventional concerto. Again the “Dies irae” theme is used to great effect. The piano soloist was Gregory Knight, well-known to the Western Piedmont Symphony and the region, where he has performed numerous times with various musical groups and soloists. Mr. Knight’s playing was clear and well-articulated, with brilliance and depth. Unfortunately, the instrument that he played was smaller than the standard concert grand and did not have the power that could have really portrayed the heaviness of the piece.
The program closed with Hector Berlioz’s (1803-1869) Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14. The symphony recounts the experiences of a young artist who falls under the spell of a woman of great beauty. She appears to him always in the form of a theme. It starts out with reveries and passions in the first movement, to a ball in the second, a scene in the country in the third, and in each he catches a glimpse of his beloved. In the fourth movement he dreams he has killed her and is led to the scaffold and executed. The fifth movement is this dream of the witches’ Sabbath, where he sees his beloved grotesquely distorted in every diabolical creature that appears before him. This is a work that brings out all of the orchestral forces, calling for nimble string playing, strenuous solo work from practically all of the wind players, and masses of percussion. All played with great strength and beauty, for a very exciting and satisfying finale, and a grand beginning to the season.