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The Durham Medical Orchestra, joined by Vox Virorum Men's Chorus, presented a program titled "Harmonies" at Baldwin Auditorium. It was rescheduled one day early due to a weather advisory of a winter snow storm which indeed blanketed much of the state with snow and other freezing stuff. The attendance was exceptional, given the circumstances.
The opening selection featured the orchestra and the rich sound of the all-male chorus, conducted by the orchestra's artistic director Verena Mösenbichler-Bryant, in a performance of John Leavitt's "Festival Sanctus." Scored for a large orchestra, the piece features the pitched percussion (piano, harp, xylophone, etc.) and brass in a harmonic set-up created to capture the tones and overtones of big bells. The effect underscores the music's bright and vigorous celebratory intension. It got everyone on board with a good taste of joy and pleasure.
The men and the orchestra joined forces again under the baton of Vox Virorum founding artistic director Jeremy M. Nabors for Randall Thompson's wistful setting of Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." Nabors maintained a slow, steady pace in leading the piece through the provocative woods with Thompson's rich harmonies. There is a special kind of sound in a well-trained male chorus that reaches into the heroic and mystical resonance of the psyche. Vox Virorum sang with precision, balance, and expressiveness.
For the next selection, Mösenbichler-Bryant returned to the podium to conduct the orchestra in Edward Elgar's Romance, for bassoon and orchestra. The soloist was Ivy Ringel, an accomplished artist who performs widely, across the country, and teaches in the Atlanta area. Elgar's Romance is a gentle piece with opportunity for lyrical singing by the versatile bassoon. Ringel's mastery of the instrument was revealed in her rich sonic versatility and expressiveness. The orchestra supported her well and was a sensitive partner in the performance.
Selections from Sleeping Beauty by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky were enhanced by three young ballerinas delighting us in their roles from the ballet; Hannah Porterfield-Winstead was the Lilac Fairy, Zanetta Chang was Bluebird and Patricia Johnson was Princess Aurora. In their lovely tutus, with graceful steps, pirouettes, and arabesques, they added sweet charm to Tchaikovsky's effervescent lyrical melodies. The selections were "Introduction," "La Fée Des Lilas," "L'oiseau et La princesse Florine," "Coda," "Aurore," and, of course, the scintillating, ever delightful "Valse." The orchestra poured their enthusiasm into the swells and expressive dynamics of Tchaikovsky's picturesque melodies.
After a brief intermission, we were treated to two quite new selections by contemporary composers and a masterpiece by a 20th century genius.
Alejandro Santoyo (b.1979) describes his "Child's Play" as a one-movement symphony composed in sonata style. It is suggestive of children playing, but in a slightly off-balanced world. Using the orchestra in a variety of rhythmic set-ups and harmonic languages, the composer creates a soundscape of creative and inventive adventures. It opens with the French horns soaring above a mysterious setting in the orchestra. The play seems to involve much imagination and free-lance negotiation. The harmonies are rich and inventive with playful and sometimes competitive rhythms. Under Mösenbichler-Bryant's leadership, the Durham Medical Orchestra delivered a fine performance
"All Stars are Love," a musical setting of a poem by e.e. cummings, is a very special piece of music. It was composed by Steven Bryant in 2010 as a wedding gift for his bride, Verena Mösenbichler. Originally written for piano and soprano, it was later arranged for wind ensemble and soprano solo; the version heard on this occasion, for orchestra and soprano, was made by Mösenbichler-Bryant.
The soprano soloist was Meredith Achey. She earned her Bachelor of Music in Applied Voice at Eastman and pursued a career as a classical musician. She decided to change her career to medicine and is currently engaged in medical studies at Duke. Achey possesses a clean and velvety smooth voice which provides a delightful listening experience. Her voice blended sweetly with the clever orchestration. Accompanying solo instruments join in one by one, building in passion until a fulfilling summit is reached and the contentment of cummings' poem fades on into the stars.
The concluding and climactic composition on the program was Benjamin Britten's masterful Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, also known by its formal name as Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Henry Purcell.
Written in 1945 as part of an educational program on the instruments of the orchestra, it remains one of Britten's enduring and popular compositions. Purcell's majestic theme is introduced in the richly harmonized full orchestra, followed by variations and a rousing fugue played, in order, by the woodwinds, the strings, the brass, and the percussion instruments and then wrapped up with the full orchestra in a glorious summation.
It is often performed with narration describing the sound and character of each group of instruments. Our broadly talented soprano soloist provided this service with a touch of wit and charm. (You should know that Achey also performed as concert hostess delivering brief helpful introductory comments before each piece on the program.)
Britten's music is not a piece of cake to perform; the fugue section, especially, requires some technical facility. Balance and blend are important and require rehearsal time and guidance from the conductor. Of course these things are required of any great music and are worth the extra time and effort for the pleasures they provide for both audience and performer.
The orchestra gave up one rehearsal session in order to reschedule the concert one day early, so as to beat the predicted snow storm. It worked out very well and though there may have been a miscue or a glitch here or there, the love of the music and the desire to deliver it with passion and skill provided an entertaining and pleasing concert, without doubt, and we didn't have to risk treacherous streets and highways!