2009 WV Symphony Review

2009 WV Symphony Review (featured on WVSO’s official site)

WV Symphony Presents “Regally Romantic”
By V.C. McCabe

The West Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s symphonic series continued this past Saturday with a “Regally Romantic” show featuring guest pianist Jon Nakamatsu. The concert was held in The Clay Center’s Maier Foundation Performance Hall.

Maestro Grant Cooper led his orchestra through performances of Franz von Suppé’s “Light Cavalry Overture”, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43″, and Anton Bruckner’s “Symphony No. 4 in E flat major, WAB 104 ‘Romantic.’” Van Cliburn award-winning pianist Jon Nakamatsu joined the orchestra for the Rachmaninoff work.

During the pre-performance “Prelude” discussion, Cooper and Nakamatsu discussed the effect modern pianos have on the sound of classical works written on earlier models of the piano. They also mentioned how a pianist’s choice to play in a way that more accurately reflects the mechanical origins of a piece (as opposed to using the full power of the modern instrument) can influence whether they win awards. Other topics of discussion were how physical environment and climate alter a piano’s sound and the challenge of memorizing classical works.

Austrian singer-composer Franz von Suppé’s “Leichte Kavallerie (Light Cavalry)” is a three-act operetta (light opera, kind of like musical theatre) that was first performed in Vienna in 1866. The operetta is a political satire that centers on a certain Earl’s preferential treatment of his dancing mistress, whose ballet company the people mockingly call “The Light Cavalry”. The Overture is one of Suppé’s most famous pieces and has been used in everything from Beetlejuice to cartoons like Animaniacs and Tiny Toon Adventures.

The WV Symphony’s rendition of “The Light Cavalry Overture” was especially exciting, full of bombast and drama. The entire orchestra was spectacular, but the horn and violin sections were particularly magnificent. The structure of the piece made it as interesting to watch as it was to listen. It was the best WV Symphony performance I’ve been to in the past 25 years.

The inclusion of twentieth century Russian composer-pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43″ was the main reason I wanted to attend and review this performance. I first heard a clip of it in the classic film Somewhere in Time and it was love at first listen.

Rachmaninoff was a friend and pupil of Tchaikovsky who suffered from depression and what was at times crippling self-doubt. His “Rhapsody” is a set of twenty-four variations on the last of Niccolò Paganini’s Caprices for solo violin, but Rachmaninoff’s work was written for solo piano and symphonic orchestra.

The piece begins with a fuller orchestral sound before gradually melting into that serenely beautifully and emotive piano melody (Variation No. 18) that I first heard in Somewhere In Time. The latter portion of the piece bursts into a faster tempo and the tension builds with its momentum.

Pianist Jon Nakamatsu played brilliantly, effortless maneuvering between moments that called for his piano to be the attention-grabbing focus of the piece and those which required a feather light touch to blend in with the rest of the orchestra. The audience was so impressed that they responded with a lengthy standing ovation, encouraging an encore.

I’ve only recently become a fan of nineteenth century Austrian composer Anton Bruckner. Bruckner’s love of music was sparked by a church organ when he was a young altar boy. He was a great fan of Wagner and, like Mahler, was unappreciated during his lifetime. In the late 1860s, Bruckner’s frenzied composing led to a mental breakdown and an obsession with counting (numeromania) that landed him in a sanatorium. Mental illness seems to have been a common part of classical composer biographies.

Bruckner’s “Symphony No. 4: “The Romantic” was written in 1874 and revised extensively in the years that followed – his compulsive habit of revising his work multiple times and the reworkings done by others after his death resulted in controversy over the authenticity of modern arrangements of his works (a.k.a. “The Bruckner Problem“).

In letters to his contemporaries, Bruckner revealed that his fourth symphony begins with a horn announcing a new day and then follows a hunting party through the woods. It depicts an almost reverent appreciation of nature rather than human romance. That initial horn blast and the gentle, horn-accented ascent of the first movement are my personal favorite parts of the symphony.

Cooper talked a bit about Bruckner during that initial “Prelude” discussion. I agree totally with his statement that Bruckner’s music is “gorgeous” and “sonorous,” but also understand his warning that the length and composition of Bruckner’s fourth symphony requires the patience and attention you would give to a wise but elderly grandparent.

I think the first movement is exhilarating and beautiful in a spacious, cinematic way – the theme initially presented by that morning horn is intricately woven throughout the movement. But even though I seem to be more of a fan of Bruckner’s music than most of the audience, it did get a little difficult to keep up my enthusiasm for the duration of the hour-long symphony. Still, the orchestra did a superb job of it and I enjoyed the night immensely.

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