Orchestral Music Review



Soloist and Orchestra Shine in Winston-Salem Season Opener

September 15, 2009 - Winston-Salem, NC:


The orchestra was in great shape and Maestro Moody at his ebullient best as this concert opened the Winston-Salem Symphony's 63rd season and Robert Moody’s fifth at the helm. Piano soloist Terrence Wilson brought the house to its feet, cheering his driving interpretation of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto which filled the entire second half of the concert.

The evening opened with a twelve-minute work, Rainbow Body (2000), by American composer, Christopher Theofanidis, 41 years old and a teacher at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. He holds several degrees from major universities, a handful of fellowships and many prizes and awards, including a Guggenheim, a Prix de Rome and six ASCAP awards. (To hear Christopher Theofanidis discuss Rainbow Body, go to http://pcm.peabody.jhu.edu/~theofanidis/Press.html [inactive 2/10].)

The name of the work refers to a Tibetan Buddhist belief that enlightened souls returned to the Cosmos as light, after their earthly death. Using for the principal theme a chant attributed to Hildegard von Bingen, the 12th Century German Christian mystic and Benedictine abbess, Theofanidis weaves a fascinating tapestry of sounds and textures – which explains why this is one of the most frequently performed “new” works in the last decade. The theme, over a I/V pedal point (a long sustained interval of a fifth, in the lowest instruments) is played in unison by the first violins and most (but not all!) of the cellos. The rest of the string instruments subtly hold each of the notes of the theme, reproducing the acoustic effect of reverberation or echo one might find in a large stone church. (Try this at home: hold down the right pedal of the piano while playing a slow hymn-like tune.)

Clusters (“handfuls” of notes, like playing the piano with the palm of the hand or the fist or forearm), bizarre effects with muted trombones and Berlioz-like tremolos (quick repeated up-downs of the bow, like trembling) vividly color the several alternating rapid sections. But the original chant always prevails. Adopted from the rude audience behavior at Prom concerts in London, a gimmick brings this lofty work down to earth when the orchestra shouts approval (“Hurrah”) at particularly loud peaks in the performance; Maestro Moody encouraged the audience to join the shouts.

This journey into cosmic mysticism ceded to the more sensuous appeal of Tchaikovsky’s music for the ballet, Swan Lake (1876). The slender tone of the oboe opened with the achingly familiar theme in the minor mode. A superbly timed harp cadenza, played by Helen Rifas, led to the warm and expressive violin of concertmaster Corine Brouwer and an exquisite duet by Ms. Brouwer and newly appointed principal cello, Brooks Whitehouse.

A number of “danses charactèristiques” followed: a Hungarian dance filled with verve and vigor, a  Spanish dance (in name only – really a Polonaise with castanets) and a Neapolitan dance in which trumpeter Anita Cirba played a humble tune with a subtle nobility that only she can pull off. I enjoyed watching the spectacle of bows and bow arms in the Mazurka – and actually wished the piece could end there. But the wonderful Waltz was the over-trumping and successful conclusion.

Rachmaninoff wrote five piano concertos (if we include the Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, probably his most played work), none of which are for timid or faint of heart pianists. The technical demands are monstrous and the sheer stamina needed compares to that of a marathon runner.

Guest artist Terrence Wilson was certainly up to the challenge – indeed, if there were any critique of this excellent pianist, it might lie in his intent to power his way through the concerto, leaving few moments of poetic nostalgia – a “might makes right” approach. And, judging by the audience reaction, this approach was successful. This is not to say that there were no intimate moments – the delicate filigree passage work and spinning waltz in the second movement testify to that!

The Tarantella-like final movement brought out some of the best collaboration between soloist and orchestra and indeed, some of the best playing from the orchestra. Unfortunately, the “big tune” everybody hoped for never materialized, but Rachmaninoff has given us plenty of those elsewhere.

I am often asked about the experience of conducting concertos. Many conductors only tolerate concertos… just barely!  The difficulty lies in matching the spontaneous ability of a soloist with the maneuverability of a 70-member team with all that momentum. A teacher once suggested that the solution is to learn what the soloist wants to do, and then to impose it on her/him. The popular idea of “following” the soloist amounts to the orchestra being late, behind the soloist, instead of with the soloist.

This was a problem in the Rachmaninoff for about 6 minutes at the beginning of the concerto – perhaps the day off (between Sunday’s matinee and Tuesday night’s performance) had energized the soloist, or tired the orchestra – but the problem was soon fixed and the rest of the concerto was spectacular.