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The viola is, inexplicably, considered by many to be the evil stepsister of the string instruments, and it is the brunt of a great many jokes. Indeed, there are a number of web sites dedicated solely to viola jokes. Imagine! But it was no joke when Amadi Hummings joined the Western Piedmont Symphony Orchestra this past Saturday, November 12, in Hickory, to play William Walton's Concerto for Viola and Orchestra.
Following the "Star-Spangled Banner," Music Director John Gordon Ross opened the second Masterworks Concert of the season with the Overture to Abu Hassan by Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826). This is a delightful little overture written "alla Turca," in the Turkish style, which was quite in vogue then and used by many composers, including Mozart and Beethoven. It is a style reminiscent of the then rather recent Ottoman invasion of Europe. The orchestra played it with all of the fervor and élan that such a work calls for.
The Viola Concerto was the first of three concertos by William Walton (1902-86) for string instruments – one each for viola (1929), violin (1930) and cello (1957). It is somewhat unusual in that it starts with a slow movement, opening with a luscious theme introduced by the viola. The second movement is a snappy scherzo, and the final movement, the most complex. It opens with the bassoon playing the theme, beautifully executed by principal bassoonist Paige West-Smith and then repeated by the soloist. The central portion develops the themes and climaxes with a fugal tutti. There follows a coda in which the opening theme is quoted by the bass clarinet, superbly played by David Kirby, while the soloist reprises the opening theme of the first movement, ending the concerto on a very quiet note.
Hummings, educated at the NC School of the Arts, the New England Conservatory of Music, and Indiana University, has appeared as a recitalist and concerto soloist in many major cities throughout the United States. I heard Hummings play this concerto with the Salisbury Symphony in 1992, when he was still a student at Indiana. I listened to the recording of that concert just several days ago. He had a true mastery of the work then, and such is the case today. He played the slow themes with lushness and expressiveness and the faster parts with energy, clarity, and technical assurance. A concerto for viola presents unique problems for both composer and performer. Whereas the violin can soar over the orchestra, and a cello, with its expressive power and sonority, can command attention, the viola is darker, more introverted, and more easily overpowered by an orchestra. In this performance, Walton and Hummings overcame these limitations admirably.
The second half of the program opened with Franz Joseph Haydn's Symphony No. 82 in C ("The Bear"). The subtitle refers to the drone in the last movement and the folksy dance theme, as in dancing bears common at the time. It could have very well been called "Scottish," as the drone also recalls bagpipes. This symphony is the first of six Paris Symphonies, written in 1786 on commission from the Chevalier Ste.-Georges of Paris. Works such as this may sound quite simple, as there are not a lot of inner textures, but they are really difficult to play, and there is little room for error, as all of the parts are quite exposed and mistakes are not easily hidden. After a hesitant start by the violins, the remainder of the symphony flowed clearly and cleanly, down to the final bear's roar at the end of the piece. The orchestra is to be congratulated on its fine performance of this not-so-easy-as-it-sounds piece.
The final work of the evening was a Suite from Othello, Op. 79, by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912). An English composer of African descent, he wrote this for a 1909 production of Othello in London. Consisting of five movements, the suite sounds very much like American film music to come thirty or forty years later, rather than Shakespeare. The works opens with a sprightly dance, followed by a very lush Intermezzo. Then come "Funeral March," "The Willow Song," and "Military March." Of note is the trumpet solo that opens "The Willow Song." Principal trumpeter Gordon Hann played this passage mellifluously and without a hint of "brass" in the conventional sense – it was perhaps the most beautiful section of the work, if not the entire concert. The orchestra, under Maestro Ross's direction, played the entire suite superbly.
I would be remiss if I did not note how sparse the audience was. The orchestra members put in a great deal of effort to present this concert, and it is a shame that more people did not have the opportunity to hear it. The citizens of the Unifour region that did not attend missed yet another great concert by the Western Piedmont Symphony Orchestra.