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The Western Piedmont Symphony, conducted by Music Director John Gordon Ross, presented the fourth concert of its Masterworks Series at the First Baptist Church. The Vega String Quartet, the last of four ensembles to audition for the resident quartet position, occupied the principal string chairs. The quartet — Blanka Bednarz and Jessica Wu, violins, Yinzi Kong, viola, and Guang Wang, cello — is currently the Quartet-in-Residence at Emory University in Atlanta, where they perform and teach.
The program opened with Claude Debussy's (1862-1918) "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun." This piece, inspired by a poem of the same name by Stéphane Mallarmé, centers on the yearnings of a faun as he watches a band of nymphs on a hot summer afternoon. Premiered in 1894, it did not achieve fame until 1912 when Nijinsky shocked audiences with his daring ballet version. It is Debussy's most famous work, and is considered by many as the awakening of modern music.
The opening flute solo, as might have been played by the faun itself, was beautifully rendered by principal flautist, Laura Dangerfield. The heat haze and the faun's yearning are then given over to the other woodwinds and the strings, only to be interrupted again and again until the theme finally disappears as the faun goes to sleep. In this performance, the orchestra exquisitely evoked the eroticism of Mallarmé's poem.
The Concerto for Clarinet in A, K.622, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91), was the last major work he completed before his death. Tonight's performance featured Sean Osborn as soloist. Osborn was appointed to the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in 1989, a position he held for eleven years. He was the youngest clarinetist in the history of the Met. He has been recently appointed to the faculty of the University of Washington in Seattle, where he teaches and composes. He also tours widely, giving performances throughout the world.
Mozart wrote his concerto for basset clarinet, an instrument with additional keys allowing it to play several notes lower than the standard clarinet. However, most modern performances are played on the standard A-clarinet, which requires transposition of some of the lower notes into an upper register. This necessity certainly did not interfere with the sheer beauty and clarity of Osborn's performance. His tone was smooth and silky, especially in the elegiac adagio movement, which conveyed the deep passion of the entire work. The orchestra was an able collaborator, playing with crispness and precision.
The concert concluded with Symphony No. 1 in A-flat, Op. 55, by Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934). Anyone who has ever been to a high school graduation is familiar with Elgar's work: "Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1." His two symphonies, however, are among the greatest of the late Romantic symphonies. They came along at a time when no English composer had created much of consequence since the Baroque era.
The Symphony No. 1 received its first performance in 1908. Its reception was extremely enthusiastic, and the composer received tremendous adulation at its premiere. The piece was played over a hundred times in its first year of life.
The first movement opens with a grand and noble theme, which eventually pervades the entire symphony. It recurs and undergoes various transformations throughout the work, and it returns in the finale as a grandiose march. Not an easy work to play, the orchestra gave the symphony a strong, if not entirely perfect, reading that achieved the grandeur and beauty the composer intended. Of particular note was the wide dynamic variation the ensemble was able to achieve. In all, this was a very satisfying performance of a work that is not often enough heard, and the Western Piedmont Symphony and Maestro Ross are to be congratulated on undertaking such a large-scale work and its successful performance.