The Western Piedmont Symphony is at it again – playing wonderfully exciting music, that is. They presented their fourth Masterworks Concert of this season at First Baptist Church in Hickory on Saturday, March 18, 2006. If you missed this one, you missed one of the finest that Music Director John Gordon Ross and his band of sixty plus musicians have presented in a long, long time.
In honor of St. Patrick's Day, the program opened with "Irish Tune from County Derry" by Percy Grainger (1882-1961). Although he was Australian and ultimately settled in the United States, Grainger was a serious collector of folk songs of the British Isles. The theme of this piece is, of course, better known to us as "Londonderry Air" and "Danny Boy." The orchestra played the work with the beauty and tenderness we have all come to associate with the piece.
Continuing in the same vein, the orchestra played "An Irish Folk Song" by Arthur Foote (1853-1937). Neither Foote nor this song is Irish. Foote was born and educated in Boston, and the theme was written just to sound Irish. Nonetheless, it was given in style by the orchestra, concluding with wonderful violin solo playing by Associate Concertmaster R. J. Wohlman.
Next on the program was "Introduction and Allegro," Op. 47, by Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934). Elgar is probably best known in this country as the composer of "Pomp and Circumstance" March No. 1, played at countless graduations and other ceremonies. He is, however, one of Britain's most celebrated composers. "Introduction and Allegro" was written for string quartet and string orchestra. Western Piedmont's resident string quartet, the Degas Quartet, was featured at this concert.
The orchestra and quartet begin with a grand fanfare that flows into a Welsh theme, introduced by a viola solo. An expressive, romantic section follows, ultimately returning to the opening theme. The Allegro begins with a theme introduced by the orchestra, followed by a very difficult fugue and ending with a recapitulation of all the work's themes, the Welsh tune reappearing in a triumphant coda.
The quartet and the orchestra played with great accuracy and lushness, tackling the central fugue with fervor and élan. For an ensemble that often has difficulty with dynamic variation, they were right on target Saturday, from drop-of-a-pin pianissimos to explosive fortissimos and all points in between. In all, this was an exceptionally fine reading of the work.
The full orchestra was back on stage for the second half of the concert to play Carl Nielsen's Symphony No. 3, Op. 27, titled "Sinfonia espansiva." Nielsen (1865-1931) is one of Denmark's "great sons" and has become recognized as one of music's great symphonists.
In the first movement, the symphony expresses strong tensions, opening with a series of accelerating hammer blows on the note A. The main theme then becomes fast and furious, energizing the whole movement. The ending brought an audible "Wow!" and applause from the audience.
The second movement is the opposite – an idyllic calm. Toward the end of the movement, two human voices sing wordlessly from within the orchestra, bringing about a paradisiacal mood. These parts were sung by soprano Kristen Yarborough and bass Adrian N. Smith. All I know about these singers is that they are two extraordinarily talented young people who sang these parts with great beauty and who were able to project clearly over the entire orchestra.
The third movement is a formidable scherzo, and the Finale is straightforward, characterizing a general joy in life, ending with a grand climax.
The orchestra played not just this symphony but also the entire concert with great conviction and purpose, energy abounding, as if somebody had built a fire under them. And, that fire was hot. This was music not played and heard every day – it took a good deal of work to pull it off, and pull it off they did! Maestro Ross and each member of the orchestra are to be congratulated on their fine achievements.