Friday, December 11, 2009

Close Encounters of the Ecstatic Kind

Close Encounters of the Ecstatic Kind

By Tom Wachunas

The Canton Symphony Orchestra, Umstattd Hall, Canton, Ohio, USA, 12/6/2009

Aaron Copland: Appalachian Spring (1943)

Sergei Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 63 (1935)

Maurice Ravel: Daphnis and Chloe Suites 1 & 2 (1912)

In this third concert of its 2009-10 MasterWorks Series, the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) demonstrated, once again with notable panache, what can best be called a de rigueur mastery of wildly varied textures and tonalities, all executed with electrifying clarity. Call it a benevolent conspiracy, then, between Umstattd Hall’s great acoustics, the orchestra’s unity of purpose (surely the result of very fine conducting), and the engaging program selection.

The evening began on a solemn, reverential note as Maestro Gerhardt Zimmerman reminded the audience of the recent death of Linda V. Moorhouse, a beloved former executive director and CEO of the orchestra. After his moving and affectionate remembrance, Zimmerman led the orchestra in a dedicatory, stunning performance of Elgar’s Nimrod.

Matthew Brown, CSO assistant conductor, then came to the podium to conduct Copland’s Appalachian Spring. He gave as succinct and bright an account of this iconic American masterpiece as I’ve ever heard. Responding in kind, the orchestra performed as would an eager dance partner, attentive to every nuance of Brown’s buoyant leading. The net result of this happy pairing was unquestionably mesmerizing.

Mesmerizing, too, was violinist and CSO Concertmaster Nathan Olson as he performed the centerpiece of the evening - Prokofiev’s compelling Violin Concerto No. 2, conducted by Zimmerman (who also conducted the final work on the program). Prokofiev set out to achieve what he called a “new simplicity” with this work, and it is fair to say that while embracing a lyricism that echoed Tchaikovsky, modernism was still clearly in tow. Prokofiev’s neo-Romantic melodic themes – soaring and sweet- are punctuated with a considerable number of blindingly fast, sometimes dissonant passages. Olson performed them all with a poetic confidence that was muscular (was that smoke I saw billowing about his fingers?) without being overbearing. His tempo remained in perfect sync with the orchestra along with his gently blended timbre. The closing of the third movement builds from a staccato solo into a tumultuous flurry of eighth notes, ending abruptly, like an exclamation point, sending a wave of vociferous adulation through the audience.

While that performance would seem like a hard act to follow, Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe Suites 1&2 fit the bill quite nicely. It is a work amply equipped to showcase the orchestra’s sonorous depth. Both suites, each divided into three parts, are symphonic meditations that contrast lyrical, pastoral beginnings with tumultuous finales, or fiery dances. It is the second suite, though, that captures and focuses those contrasts with particularly breathtaking drama. If sunrise can be said to have a sound, it is surely here in the first section, Lever du jour. Amid shimmering flute solos mingling with reeds and harp, the orchestra, like a master painter, rendered lush, enchanting textures that set an ever-brightening tone for what was to come. The finale – Danse generale – is an ecstatic bachanale, a percussive love dance. The orchestra rose to the celebration with astonishing energy as it delivered rolling crescendo after crescendo, like distant winds gathered into thunderclaps. Such delightful musical paroxysms were clearly thrilling to an already enraptured audience.

Photo: violinist and Concertmaster of the Canton Symphony Orchestra, Nathan Olson – courtesy Canton Symphony Orchestra

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