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For the final Classical concert of the year (the next concert, which closes the season on May 5, is country and western themed), the Salisbury Symphony Orchestra presented an evening of music entirely by Antonín Dvořák. The concert was sponsored by the generosity of Charles and Rachel Oestreicher Bernheim. In a sense, this could be considered a "country and eastern" concert; from Eastern Europe, and the countries being Moravia and Bohemia. Dvořák was not shy about using folk themes and nationalistic styles, with the result that his music had deep favor among his countrymen, but some issues when exported to some countries. But he was not exclusive in this method; when in America, he felt quite at home incorporating folk tunes, Negro spirituals, and Native American themes. This in turn has assured his acceptance and popularity here.
Conductor David Hagy gave his customary pre-concert talk, which is always welcome. Somehow, he manages to have more energy than anyone in the room, even after thirty years at the helm. This is handy, as he can bound all the way to the wings and back to the podium for extra bows before the applause fades. I'd never make it past the violins!
The first work on the program was the Slavonic Dance in G minor, Op. 46 No. 8. This, as well as all the pieces except for the next one, had a full compliment of brass (two trumpets, four horns, three trombones, and there was a tuba up there as well). Dvořák used them to great effect, and the SSO brass section was solid on this night. This dance, "Furiant," is brief but as the tempo marking would indicate, fast, loud, and a lot of fun. It is also one of the most familiar of the set.
To balance this initial blast, the second work, Silent Woods, Op. 68 No. 5 for solo double bass and small orchestra, was mellow, soft, and lyrical. The soloist was Mara Barker, who is principal bassist for the Salisbury Symphony. Her instrument is a real beauty and a joy to behold for those of us who are aficionados of fine string instruments. Keppel Auditorium on the campus of Catawba College is decidedly on the dry side (even as it was wet outside), and soloists have a hard time being heard. This was no exception, adding to the usual difficulties with bassists in solo parts. The original orchestration done by Dvořák from a piano four-hands score was for cello and orchestra, but this was a well-done adaptation for double bass. As the piece is relaxed and slow, there weren't any pyrotechnics required, which sometimes can be tiresome. Barker was very effective in this short piece, and I recommend looking up the cello and orchestra version if you haven't heard it – which is likely, as it is not widely known.
Next up was perhaps the jewel of all Dvořák compositions, his masterful Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in B minor, Op.104. He had been pestered by cellist Hanuš Wihan to write a concerto for a long time, but considered the cello to be poorly suited to solo works with orchestra. In 1892, Dvořák took the job as director of the National Conservatory in New York City, where another teacher there, Victor Herbert, had his cello concerto performed. Impressed, Dvořák decided to give it a go. During the composition, he got word that his sister-in-law was very ill; she died before the final revisions on the concerto. The wistful slow section just before the ending quotes one of his songs which was a favorite of hers.
Tonight's soloist was Ryan Graebert, the principal cellist of the orchestra. He has quite the resume for so early in his career, and has a chamber music duo with his charming bassoonist wife Marian. He is also the assistant principal of the Winston Salem Symphony, a section cellist with the Greensboro Symphony, and substitutes with the North Carolina Symphony. He has a D.M.A. from UNC-Greensboro. (I've heard his cello before; he bought it from Bonnie Thron about three years ago, and it sounds as great now as then.) As mentioned above, he had to contend with the dry acoustics of the hall. Personally, I would favor amplifying the soloist in such cases, but that's not the Classical tradition, so there it is. The orchestra played with considerable finesse, and did a decent job given the hall's limitations. This is a highly emotionally charged piece, and Graebert put his all into it. Hagy and the orchestra followed the soloist's rubato, which is always the challenge in concertos, especially of the Romantic era. (I've seen such mangled elsewhere, and nothing is more certain to set the teeth to grinding.) At the conclusion, Graebert and the orchestra earned many cheers and a standing ovation – unusual for a piece not at the end of the concert.
After intermission, the concert concluded with Symphony No. 8 in G, Op. 88. Many of the themes are based on Bohemian material; Hagy, in his remarks, compared it to Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony. It is also sometimes called the "Old World" symphony, in contrast to the more popular New World Symphony. Its mood is overall more cheerful and upbeat than most Dvořák symphonies, especially the Symphony No. 7, which is quite stormy. Once again, the brass really shone in this performance, as did the timpani. Note that while Dvořák is certainly a nationalistic composer, he based much of his structure, technique, and orchestration on German models, especially Wagner and Brahms. The hall acoustics really didn't pose a problem so much with this piece, since there wasn't a soloist in danger of being overpowered. Somehow Hagy's energy was unflagged for the up-tempo last movement, which requires quite the display of conductorial athletics.
The performance was quite satisfying. Once again, the Salisbury Symphony Orchestra showed itself to be of high quality and certainly worth attending and supporting.