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Symphony orchestra concerts can either be bright and sparkling as a starry sky or overcast and cloudy. The Western Piedmont Symphony’s fourth Masterworks Concert, presented at P. E. Monroe Auditorium of Lenoir-Rhyne University under the direction of John Gordon Ross, Music Director, was mostly the former, radiant nova lighting up the nighttime sky. Joining the orchestra to occupy the principal string chairs was guest quartet-in-residence, the Hausmann Quartet from San Francisco.
Opening the concert was “Peace Overture” by Russell Peck (1945-2009), presented as a memorial to the composer on the first anniversary of his untimely death. Focusing on Anwar Sadat’s courageous trip to Jerusalem to try to seek peace with Israel, an overture that cost him his life, the music does not only portray peace, but also the drama of trying to overcome hostility. It is filled with hints of near-Eastern flavor, but also is very American, typical of Peck’s oeuvre. It opens with a quiet, peaceful theme, including the African-American spiritual, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” and moves on to a lively section filled with many jazz elements and full of percussion before it returns to the calmness of the opening. The orchestra responded to this moving tribute with great pathos and zeal, lovingly played with passion and intensity.
Frederic Chopin’s (1810-1849) Piano Concerto in F minor, Op. 21, followed, with Cynthia Lawing as soloist. Ms Lawing has performed both recitals and concertos throughout the world. She currently is on the Music Faculty of Davidson College.
The F minor concerto was composed when Chopin was 19 and is in the usual three movements. It is the larghetto (slow) movement, inspired by Chopin’s love for a young singer at the Warsaw Conservatory, which was a favorite of early audiences and is perhaps one of the most beautiful and melodic of his compositions. The fast movements are quite imaginative and even a bit unconventional for the time. Although this performance was generally solid, I would have preferred a bit more luster and romance to arouse my interest.
The star of the evening was Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39, by Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). Despite living during the era of Schoenberg, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, and Bartók, all of whom were experimenting with different sounds, Sibelius tended to hold to the principles of the Romantic era. Although somewhat influenced by Tchaikovsky, Sibelius’ music was intensely Finnish.
In this performance, homage must be paid to the splendid clarinet solos of Doug Miller, the flute solos of Lissie Okopny, oboe solos of Anna Morris, bassoon solos of Paige West-Smith, and harp solos of Helen Rifas, as well as the marvelous ensemble playing of the woodwinds and the brass. Special mention must be made of timpanist Charles Smith, whose work throughout the entire symphony was as intense and demanding as any soloist’s, and was spectacularly performed. The strings did not have it any easier, and they played with great lushness and vigor.
The entire orchestra is to be congratulated on a stellar performance, and an overall dazzling and exciting evening.