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Orchestral Music Review

Western Piedmont Symphony Masterworks III - 2008-2009

February 7, 2009 - Hickory, NC:

The Western Piedmont Symphony presented its third masterworks concert of the season at the First Baptist Church under the baton of Music Director John Gordon Ross. The same program had been presented the previous evening at the Newton-Conover Civic and Performance Place.

The program opened with "Danse negre" from African Suite, Op. 35, No. 4, by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) who was of African and English descent. Originally written for solo piano in 1898, it was transcribed for orchestra by the composer in 1901. This is a lively and delightful little dance, based on poetry by Paul Laurence Dunbar rather than African themes. The orchestrated version sounds as if it could have been written by Dvořák. The orchestra presented a sprightly and spirited performance.

"Appalachian Concerto" for Piano and Orchestra by Edmund Barton Bullock (b. 1956), with the composer as the piano soloist, completed the first half of the program. A North Carolina native, Mr. Bullock divides his time between Toulouse, France, and the United States. The world premiere was performed by the Appalachian State University Symphony Orchestra in 2005 as part of the inaugural celebration for Chancellor Kenneth Peacock. This was the first American performance with the composer at the piano.

The original sketches for the concerto were begun at Beech Mountain in North Carolina. The first movement depicts the birth of spring on the mountain. The second movement, "Largo," reflects the death of winter and a sadness for the failures of mankind in the twenty-first century to resolve its problems without resorting to war. The final movement is very joyous, an expression of victory and re-birth.

The concerto flows thematically as a whole from start to finish – indeed, there is no break between the first and second movements. The piano part requires virtuosic skill, exhibited quite well by Mr. Bullock. The orchestra provided its own expert collaboration.

The concert concluded with Symphony No. 7 in A, Op. 92, by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). This symphony is perhaps Beethoven's crowning achievement. Written four years after the sixth symphony, he had advanced to an absolutely new stylistic level, instilling his own personal message into the music. As a result, he greatly influenced the next two generations of composers.

The seventh symphony is infinitely optimistic, and its many dance rhythms have earned it the description of "apotheosis of the dance." Each of the four movements contains numerous dance themes. Even the second, which starts as a funeral dirge, dissolves into a happy middle section. The fourth movement is so ebullient, that some felt that Beethoven must have been drunk when he composed it.

We are accustomed to hearing this work performed by a very large symphony orchestra; however, Maestro Ross used his chamber-sized orchestra to his advantage. The smaller group allowed for clear articulation of the notes at Beethoven's rapid tempi, and also for clarity of thematic lines that are often blurred with larger ensembles. The solo parts by the principal woodwinds – Laura Stevens, flute; Anna Morris, oboe; Douglas Miller, clarinet; and Paige West-Smith, bassoon – play a very important part in this symphony and were very well performed. The prominent timpani part, thought by many to be the dear Beethoven's only way of hearing the music when conducting, did not go unnoticed. Charles Smith, principal timpanist, appeared to literally be dancing to perform his very demanding part. The orchestra is to be commended in this extraordinarily fine performance of one of the greatest compositions in the symphonic literature.