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The Winston-Salem Symphony, under the leadership of Maestro Timothy Redmond, offered an outstanding concert of three familiar works of the Romantic period, two of Czech origin and the third, the towering Violin Concerto of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, ravishingly played by American violinist Rachel Barton Pine.
The Stevens Center was quite full as the audience defied the sunshine to pay tribute to the new leadership of the orchestra and the first visit of the young soloist. The stage was also packed with a full complement of strings (finally!), sounding richer and fuller than for some time. It was a pleasure to note the return of Anita Cirba to the trumpet section after a lengthy medical leave. The concert opened on a somber note as Maestro Redmond revealed the unexpected and premature death of Keith Yarbrough (the orchestra's tuba player through the 1980s and '90s), and dedicated the performance of the opening work to his memory.
Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884) was a Czech nationalist composer of operas (sung in Czech), but who is best known for the lovely tone poem known as "The Moldau," which takes its name from the longest river entirely within the borders of the Czech Republic, flowing into the Elbe river which empties into the North Sea after crossing Germany. The music imitates the river, starting with of flute droplets which melt into swirling whorls of woodwinds which finally coalesce into one of the most memorable of melodies, reminiscent of the Hatikvah, the National Anthem of Israel.
As we glide down the river, we encounter a peasant wedding, cross eerie marshes in the moonlight, deal with tumultuous rapids and finally emerge as a broad and powerful river as the tone poem moves from minor trickle to major river. The woodwinds were tender, delicate and well-controlled in their tricky opening and the strings lush as the main melody emerged. Maestro Redmond served as pilot and focal point, often remaining motionless while the musicians sailed admirably and inexorably downstream.
The Sibelius Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47, is the only concerto the Finnish master composed (beside 7 symphonies and over a dozen tone poems and shorter works based on the Finnish epic legend, the Kalevala). Written in 1904 and revised a year later, the work is in the traditional three movements, but there tradition halts and Sibelius innovates, putting together parts and pieces of a melody until the completed theme emerges. Hemeola plays a large part of the first movement, especially in the evolution of the second theme. (Hemeola is the combining and clashing of duple and triple rhythms at the same time – frustrating for conductors who must choose to beat either the triple rhythm or the duple, to the frustration of those musicians who fit their different rhythm between those beats!)
Our soloist for the Sibelius concerto, Pine, was phenomenal; the performance was impeccable! Starting with almost no vibrato in the chilly rarified accompaniment of strings, she developed her thematic material with refinement and delicacy, building for the monumental cadenza with its unleashed display of virtuosity. The purity and beauty of her tone and her impeccable intonation made the high peaks of slowly descending triplets breath-taking.
The second movement is much warmer and romantic than the first. Here her tone broadened, darkened and deepened, to suit the brooding nature of the music. The rhythmically complex double stops (when the violinist plays two lines or notes at the same time, effectively accompanying oneself) were flawless.
Sir Donald Tovey wryly called the third movement of the Sibelius concerto a "polonaise for polar bears," referring to the triple meter and the constant dotted rhythm which returns time and again. This is the most exciting movement of the concerto and is filled with pyrotechnics – unbelievable up-bow spiccato passage of thirds, twice!! And in typical Sibelius fashion, the ending is abrupt although thrilling.
In response to a spontaneous standing ovation, the ebullient soloist told some stories of pioneering female violinists who had toured with the Sibelius, and proceeded to play a brilliant encore by Mark O'Connor, his First Caprice (of six) where her incredible coordination and precision were astounding, and even more impressing than in the concerto! All this she played on her priceless Guarnerius del Gesù.
After intermission, when I moved upstairs to the preferred acoustics of the balcony, we were treated to one of the less played of Dvořák's nine symphonies, the jolly Symphony No. 6, in D, Op. 60. Redmond eloquently introduced the audience to Dvořák, the man, through a few quotations of famous people who knew him. The first movement of the symphony is a written in a cheerful three beats per measure, but fast enough to feel it in one, and is a thoroughly pleasant movement. Both the second and fourth movements seem to last disproportionately long for the amount of thematic material comprising them, Not so, the third movement, a "Furiant" dance inspired by Bohemian folk music. The final movement had many moments which reminded me of Johannes Brahms's Second Symphony, which predates this work by only a few years.
The program repeats Tuesday, March 10 at 7:30 p.m. See sidebar for details.