Orchestral Music Review



Western Piedmont Symphony Masterworks V - 2007/8

April 12, 2008 - Hickory, NC:


A "Titan" is "one that is gigantic in size or power, one that stands out for greatness of achievement." (Merriam-Webster's 11th Collegiate Dictionary). "Titans" is the title given this final concert of the season by Music Director John Gordon Ross, and it lived up to its name in every respect.

Opening the Western Piedmont Symphony program was the Overture to the Ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43a, by Ludwig van Beethoven (1771-1827). All of the overtures that Beethoven wrote were as preludes to something else, in this case a ballet, the choreographic and dramatic details of which are now lost. Its composition closely followed his first symphony, and bears some stylistic relationship to that work. The main section of the overture is a lively allegro, which was played with stunningly impeccable clarity and unity by the violins, and equal vivacity by the other sections of the orchestra.

The second titan on the program was "Totentanz" (Dance of Death) - Paraphrase on "Dies Irae", S. 126 by Franz Liszt (1811-1886). The piano soloist was Jeremy Thompson. Thompson is from New Brunswick, Canada, and received his Doctor of Musical Arts degree in piano performance from McGill University in 2005. He presently serves as Director of Music Ministries at First Presbyterian Church in Goldsboro, NC.

"Totentanz" is a set a variations for piano and orchestra based on "Dies Irae" – the Day of Wrath – from the Mass of the Dead. The piano and orchestra pass the theme and variations back and forth, each building on the preceding section, culminating in a concerto making extreme demands on the skill of the pianist, called by some a "Concerto from Hell." Thomson met, and even exceeded those demands, with vigor, clarity, and accuracy. Every note of the many glissandos in the second variation was crystal clear, a rare phenomenon. His playing demonstrated a musicality and understanding of the composer's intentions, not allowing the filigree which is so typical of Liszt to overshadow the whole of the composition. The orchestra performed as admirably, and with every difficult passage offered by the pianist volleyed with its own passage, to be returned by the piano, as if they were, perhaps, playing tennis.

Jeremy Thompson is an artist to watch. He is surely the finest piano soloist to appear with the Western Piedmont Symphony, and I predict that before long he will be appearing with many of major symphony orchestras throughout the world.

The concert concluded with Symphony No. 1 in D Major, "Titan," by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). The "Titan" in the title does not refer to giants, but refers to a novel by Jean Paul about a young German prince full of emotional excess. Nonetheless, it is a still a giant of a work. It is scored for seven French horns, five trumpets, four trombones, and two timpanists, in addition to the usual very large symphony orchestra.

Leonard Bernstein said that all of Mahler's music is about Mahler; that is, it is about conflict. This symphony is no exception. Opening with stylized bird calls and distant military fanfares juxtaposed with themes from his "Wayfarer Songs" in the first movement, moving on to Austrian peasant dances in the second movement, a funeral march and vulgar dance-band music in the third, the symphony culminates in a search for victory in which Mahler finally succeeds. And, indeed, this performance must be the crowning achievement in the history of Western Piedmont Symphony performances. To mention all of the fine solo performances would require mention of all of the section principals in the orchestra. Because it is so rarely heard, I will note, however, the excellent double bass solo played by Rip Nolan, which opened the third movement.

And, thus, another season of music comes to an end, in glorious triumph, with a concert probably unequaled in the annals of the Western Piedmont Symphony Orchestra and its Music Director, John Gordon Ross.