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Halloween always seems to inspire the imaginations of orchestra conductors, and the program for the opening concert of the Salisbury Symphony’s forty-fourth season at Keppel Auditorium on the campus of Catawba College was no exception. Maestro David Hagy and his very large band of musicians presented a program designed to chill and thrill the abundant audience.
Opening the program was Johann Sebastian Bach’s (1685-1750) Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Originally written for organ, it was transcribed for orchestra by Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977), who was then conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. This piece was made famous for its part in Walt Disney’s film Fantasia, and it has become almost synonymous with Halloween. Not particularly easy to play for an organist, it is even more difficult for a large orchestra because it requires extreme precision for clarity of sound. This performance was one of the most satisfying I have heard, with modulation of tempos to bring out the tensions of the music, lushness of the strings, and overall accuracy of the notes to keep everything crisp and clear.
To continue the sinister sounds of the season, Dr. Hagy programmed “The Infernal Machine” by Christopher Rouse (born 1958). This short piece captures the image of a perpetual motion machine that exists for no particular reason. It is dissonant, explosive, and has to be destroyed with force, which it is at the last note. This is yet another work that is fiendishly difficult for the orchestra to play because of all its fast, irregular tempos, but the Salisbury Symphony made it look like a piece of cake and it played a seemingly perfect performance.
In homage to the 200th anniversary of Frederic Chopin’s (1810-1849) birth, the orchestra presented his Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21, with Cynthia Lawing as guest soloist. Ms Lawing is currently on the Music Faculty of Davidson College and has performed both recitals and concertos throughout the world.
The F minor concerto was composed when Chopin was 19, and is in the usual three movements. It is the larghetto (slow) movement, inspired by Chopin’s love for a young singer at the Warsaw Conservatory, which was a favorite of early audiences, and is perhaps one of the most beautiful and melodic of his compositions. The fast movements are quite imaginative and even a bit unconventional for the time. This performance was filled with luster and romantic expression by the soloist and the orchestra provided superb collaboration, for a rather pleasing performance.
Finally, the orchestra played Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881). David Hagy explained that he programmed this work because it was the first recording that he ever owned, and he had always wanted to conduct it. So there you have it.
Mussorgsky originally wrote this work for piano in memory of his dear friend Viktor Hartmann, an artist whose sudden death resulted in tremendous grief for Mussorgsky. Each of the ten movements evokes one of the pictures in an exhibit of Hartmann’s works. The work was then orchestrated in 1922 by the master of orchestration, Maurice Ravel (1875-1937).
The performance requires all of the orchestral forces in various combinations and permutations – strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion – and all performed admirably. Of special note was the tenor saxophone solo played by Eileen Young: beautiful, smooth, and luxurious. As the work concluded, a cheering audience rose to its feet to recognize an exceptional performance by the orchestra on a perfect fall evening.