Monday, April 12, 2010
Of Genius and Spring
Of Genius and Spring
By Tom Wachunas
In an unexpectedly light-hearted break from ‘traditional’ concert beginnings, for this concert, all 75 members of the Canton Symphony Orchestra entered the house from the rear in a bouncing procession down the aisles of Umstattd Hall. Once on stage they stood, each with a warm smile, facing the audience. The moment was endearing, as if to welcome not just an adoring audience, but Spring, in all its sunny splendor.
Interestingly enough, the first work on the April 10 program could hardly be called sunny. No matter, really. With Samuel Barber’s Essay for Orchestra No. 1, the orchestra wasted no time in once again demonstrating an astonishingly rich, balanced tonal unity, and mastery of subtle lyricism. This single-movement Barber composition, which is as much a soulful meditation as it is an ‘essay,’ is an exquisitely equipped vehicle for those qualities. A solemn spirit – at times exuding a sense of desolate loneliness - pervades the first part of the work, beginning with the theme quietly introduced by the strings, but soon enough soaring to a passionate climax with the horns. Then momentums shift, and variations in mood and texture ensue. Throughout, the orchestra was clearly sensitive to Maestro Zimmermann’s warm grasp of the work’s elegiac poeticism. After the full orchestra delivered a sonorous return to the opening theme, the work ended with a retreat to a hushed, unresolved harmony, leaving in its wake a gentle tension.
In some ways that tension continued well into the beginning of the next work on the program, Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1. The orchestra developed the opening themes over what seemed to be an interminable period before the piano made its bold entrance. Ahh, but the suspense was all the more sweet upon hearing just a few bars played by the featured guest artist here, pianist Panayis Lyras.
One could make a fairly convincing argument that what Einstein did for understanding the physics of the universe, Chopin did for mastering the piano. The French considered him an angel. And of Chopin’s nonpareil piano skills. Mendelssohn once observed, “…there is something entirely original in his piano playing and it is, at the same time, so masterly that he may be called a perfect virtuoso.”
It’s difficult to see how Mendelssohn’s assessment of the musical genius Chopin couldn’t be applied to Mr. Lyras as well. His command of the rubato technique that Chopin championed (one that allowed for great rhythmic liberty) was in dazzling abundance, along with an uncanny sensitivity to the music’s lush, evocative emotionality. His performance of the cascading embellishments that make Chopin compositions so uniquely thrilling (and challenging) was nothing short of magical. Meanwhile, the orchestral accompaniment, while executed with balanced restraint, was never languid or anemic, but always crisply supportive of Lyras’ electrifying finesse.After this superb performance, Lyras further thrilled the now-enraptured audience with his encore of Chopin's Mazurka in A flat.
Apropos to this season of awakening from wintry doldrums, the concert concluded on a jubilant note with Schumann’s Symphony No. 1 in B flat Major, a.k.a. “Spring.” This was as efficacious a reading of Schumann’s celebration of the season as one could ever hope to hear, and a thoroughly rousing end to the evening. Not that conductor or musicians were by any means lethargic for the Chopin, but here even Maestro Zimmermann was visibly more animated as he led the orchestra through the symphony’s powerful opening fanfare of trumpets and horns. From there it was an exhilarating musical journey through vernal majesty, drama, and the promise of joyous renewal. It’s a promise that this orchestra consistently keeps well.
Photo: 1838 oil portrait of Frederic Chopin, by Eugene Delacroix