Thursday, October 22, 2009

Giants Among Us

Giants Among Us

By Tom Wachunas

Theofanidis, Mozart, Dvorak: Menahem Pressler (piano), Gerhardt Zimmerman (conductor)
The Canton Symphony Orchestra, Umstattd Hall, Canton, Ohio, USA, 10.10.2009, (TW)

Christopher Theofanidis: Rainbow Body (2000)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 17 in G Major, K.453 (1784)
Antonin Dvorak: Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op.88 (1889)

Umstattd Hall, the performing home of the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO), is certainly, for most orchestral intents and purposes, acoustically impeccable. Its design sufficiently eliminates ambient noise, providing optimal listening conditions. So for that, there isn’t here a bad seat in the house. But what if a musical composition is inspired by, and indeed calls for the constant resonance of ambient sound?

That phenomenon is the lush aural soul of Rainbow Body, a thirteen-minute work by American composer Christopher Theofanidis, which opened the first concert of the CSO 2009-10 season. Theofanidis surrounded his principal melodic theme with what he has called a “wet acoustic,” successfully imitating the echoes and reverberations one would encounter in a cathedral. The effect is apropos to the melodic source, a chant by the 12th-century mystic and abbess, Hildegard of Bingen. Its haunting resonance is created via notes sustained at the end of one musical passage while the next is being introduced.

In his delightfully avuncular fashion, Maestro Zimmerman introduced the work by reminding the audience to not read while he was speaking, since he had some fascinating information to impart which was not to be found in the program notes. Specifically, toward the finale of the piece, orchestra members vocalize in the “whooping” tradition that Theofanidis encountered at the dress rehearsal for the piece’s London debut. The composer was so moved by the effect that he permanently scored it into the music.

Zimmerman then proceeded to lead the orchestra through each phase of the work with all the studied finesse and reverence of a priest performing a sacred ritual. The orchestra responded with equal finesse in delivering the work’s rapturous changes of color. The eerily quiet violins began with a sustained tremolo, like the vibration of a faint electrical undercurrent. Over this whisper, various instruments sounded short bursts, heralding darker passages to come. Strings introduced the primary melody, and this meditative theme returned several times throughout, rising more gracefully each time through several distinctly ominous-sounding passages. The work took on nearly cinematic urgency as it built toward a percussive, then brassy finale, interspersed with the players’ vocalizations. But these were not voices caught up in cacophonous celebration. Rather, they were a gentle yet soaring praise of transcendent human spirit, all culminating in the unexpectedly intense climax, clearly moving the audience to a visible level of awe-inspired attention.

The centerpiece of the evening was the Mozart piano concerto, featuring the inimitable Menahem Pressler, who delivered the most memorable performance by a CSO guest soloist in recent memory. With the thunderous conclusion of the Theofanidis work still resonating in my memory, I thought the overall sound of the orchestra in this piece was somewhat anemic by comparison, though certainly not for lack of melodic heft. To be fair, Mozart did score the work for a medium-sized orchestra, as evidenced here by fewer musicians on stage. Nonetheless, Pressler’s interpretation of the music was powerfully fresh and polished, and all the more amazing when considering that at 85, he still enthralls audiences with both stellar technique and riveting poeticism. And as if Pressler’s playing of Mozart weren’t enough to whet our appetites for excellence, his exquisite encore performance of Chopin’s mesmerizing Nocturne No. 20 in C Sharp Minor (Op. Post.) was the stuff of pure musical genius. Pressler is a marvelously transparent player. His face, with its animated expressions of genuine wonderment at the music, was an engaging performance in its own right. He didn’t merely play the music well. He inhabited it.

All of the orchestra’s commanding aural presence returned with electrifying passion in performing Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8. With its varied palette of emotions from searing pathos to unfettered jubilance, the rich melodic content throughout this masterpiece is largely driven by the cellos. Here they rose to the occasion with startlingly sonorous unity, leading the way for the rest of the orchestra to perform in similarly invigorating style. By the sounding of the last note of the heart-stopping finale, the orchestra had clearly reaffirmed its legitimate claim of being one of the most exciting and accomplished young orchestras in America.

Photo: pianist Menahem Pressler, courtesy

No comments: