HSO: Berlioz, Rodrigo, & Copland

October 11, 2003 - Hendersonville, NC:

The Hendersonville Symphony Orchestra is enjoying its 32nd season of music making and arts activities in the mountain region. For a community orchestra, it has remarkable depth, ambitious programs and a fine conductor in Thomas Joiner. There are about 40 paid musicians on a roster that swells to 60+ when need. A few pros donate their services. On October 11, they assembled in the venerable Hendersonville High School Auditorium (const. 1926) for a program dedicated to Carl Sandburg, whose final home, Connemara , is in nearby Flat Rock, and to celebrate the 200th birthday of Hector Berlioz. Sandburg often sang folk songs, self-accompanied on guitar, and he loved classical guitar music and players, so there was a guitar concerto, too.

The concert started with Berlioz's "Roman Carnival" Overture, written in 1843 as the opening work of the second act of the opera Benvenuto Cellini . This is the typical program opener, an overture designed to stir the masses with alternating declamatory horn figures, rapid passagework from the strings, and lyric pastorale sections featuring the English horn. The composer's grasp of imitation, form/style, and overall orchestration is clearly evident and nicely packaged. It has a nice coda and noisy end for the horns augmented on this occasion by the conductor's fist, raised high. Good stuff. With it we learned that the hall itself tends toward the dry end of the acoustic plane. There is no sustain, so sound tends to just stop. We're also dealing with red velour-esque materials in seat cushions and curtains that prevent any real bounce or acceleration.

Next was Joaquin Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez , for guitar and orchestra, with Dr. Steven Walter as guest artist. Written in 1939, it has become one of the all-time great guitar concertos. The first performance was by Regino Sainz de la Maza on November 9, 1940, in Barcelona, with Cesar Mendoza Lasalle conducting. It was an immediate success, and the popular second-movement main theme is still heard in elevators and dentists' offices everywhere in the world. This work features crisp rhythms, stirring soaring string lines, and wonderful parts for woodwinds. Again the English horn has one of those drop-dead lyrical melodies musicians would crawl through a field of broken glass to play. So too for any guitarist, and Walter delivered the earthy soul of Spain with his performance. More about that in a minute.

After intermission came A Lincoln Portrait by Aaron Copland, the final link to Carl Sandburg. Ron Whittemore was the narrator, and his performance was memorable for an absence of theater and steady focus on the task. The first performance of this work was May 14, 1942, in Cincinnati, with narrator William Adams and Andre Kostelanetz, conductor. Later performances featured two Illinois legends, Adlai Stevenson and Carl Sandburg, as the narrator - big shoes to fill. The music, distinctive for its innovative flirtations with pandiatonicsm, avoidance of the leading tone of the scale, and placement of the tonic as the top note, is imbued with folk tunes from Lincoln's time and earlier, including quotes from Stephen Foster's "Camptown Races." The result is one of those blue chip tips to all segments of popular appeal: memorable folk melodies, a leading-edge style, and a patriotic centerpiece quoting Abraham Lincoln.

Thomas Joiner conducts with a vigorous, engaged and compelling style. His vision is clear, his mission straightforward, and his assertive pursuit of these objectives leaves the impression everything is being created at the moment. He drew performances from orchestra members one would expect for a much larger organization, and better paid to boot.

Soloist Steven Walter, by contrast, delivered a demanding guitar performance with cool intellect, a virtuoso technique, and the kind of satisfaction you'd get from spun aluminum or burnished brass; uniform, pleasing, consistent, exciting, and a sound so appealing you don't know how hard it is to create. Playing a 1994 Thomas Humphrey Millennium guitar amplified for both audience and orchestra members, his brisk scale work emerged from the orchestra with wonderful clarity, his interpretation of the lyrical and compelling middle movement suggested the presence of legendary spirits, and the delivery of the rapid third movement inspired the audience to stand, students first, when the final soft accents brought the work to an end. This is a front rank player among American guitarists, and he lives in nearby Flat Rock! Go figure.

One problem: The HSO Web site consistently misspelled the guest artist's name for six months, and within a week of the concert showed the program as "Rodrigo........March & Procession of the Nobles" with the artist's name still not corrected. Then, a post-concert review appeared in the local Hendersonville Times-News with a completely new name. All those impressions darken the twenty minutes or so of actual playing exposure, but at least the evening's program had it correct.

Let's fix this: It's Steven (with a "v") Walter (no "S"). Like two first names. Remember that. Buy the ticket. Take the ride.