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Fox Valley Symphony ends 2006-07 season in spectacular fashion - If this is not success, we can't imagine what is!

Apr. 26, 2007

By Erik Eriksson

In the fourth consecutive sold-out performance this season, Music Director Brian Groner and the Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra surpassed themselves in shaping a bristling, life-affirming Ninth Symphony that provided the fullest possible explication of what Beethoven was striving for. Groner seems to find his way into the psyche and sound world of every composer whose work he addresses - and that is a gift possessed by the very few, not the many. Once again, he gave us a concert full of quality music, representing three distinct musical eras. Each was given life with phrasing and tonal shaping that met the strictest standards for scholarship while energizing the notes.

Before the Ninth Symphony, which occupied the program's second half, Groner gave us Handel and Hoiby (Lee Hoiby (b. 1926), a Wisconsin native whose music is comfortably approachable). From Handel's Royal Fireworks Music we heard the Ouverture, Boure, La Paix and La Rejouissance. Employing a full orchestra, Groner followed in the tradition established by the composer; Handel reveled in the noise that could be made by a large ensemble and in this score created outdoor music that insists on big gestures.

Despite the grand complement of players, the light fantastic here was truly, lightly tripped. Phrasing was crisp, the trumpets sounded in piping formation and the other brass and winds were both strong and refined. Retards at the ends of phrases were swift and meaningful with none of the grindingly slow lowerings of velocity that prevailed in the past. The orchestra gave constant evidence of the sheen that it has acquired in recent years, another hallmark in its mastery of a broad repertory.

Lee Hoiby's I Have a Dream sets the now-iconic speech by Dr. Martin Luther King in a framework of well-crafted neo-Romanticism, rather in the tradition of Samuel Barber. The composer created a viable underlayment for Dr. King's ringing words, those being so powerful as to create a real challenge for anyone daring to set them. The soloist was baritone Gerard Sundberg, a Chicago area singer and vocal pedagogue. With his powerful voice (well able to ride the most voluminous orchestral climaxes) and very clear diction, he was able to validate the gripping text, focusing attention on the words, right where it should be. A little more rehearsal time might have brought Hoiby's orchestration into higher relief, but the performance still made a significant impression.

After the Beethoven Ninth, several musical types ventured the opinion that this had been the best Ninth they had ever heard. We concur: it emerged as a performance that had to be ranked at the very top of the list, that list including both live performances and recordings (and that's a lot of B. Nines). Hewing to something midway between an over-Romanticized interpretation and one brittle and tonally starved (as given us by certain specialists whose wisdom is better spent on music of the Baroque), Groner responded to the score itself in honoring the composer's aspirations.

Did Beethoven overreach in writing this, his final symphony? The answer is almost certainly Yes, but his arriving a little short of his goal still outranks the most Olympian efforts of others. His deafness no doubt had something to do with the high tessitura that beleaguers both soloists and chorus. A great performance, however, sweeps aside such concerns - and this was inarguably a great performance.

For the opening movement, Groner kept the tempo firm, likewise the textures. Crescendi were managed adroitly, meaningfully. In the second movement, timpanist Paul Ristau was spot-on in reinforcing the relentless tempo, placing those cataclysmic strokes with electrifying precision and force. The third movement, Adagio molto e cantabile, was exactly that, unfolding with immaculate balance among the sections, strings to winds and beyond.

In the final movement, which saw the entrance of the four soloists, the quasi-recitative beginning erupted with fierce energy, establishing the mode for what followed. Thank goodness, the FVSO chose not to go the bargain route in choice of soloists; they were as fine a foursome as one can find on any recording. Soprano Patrice Michaels has the firm, shining instrument to ride her highlying music without undue effort. Hers was a standard-setting performance.

Karen Brunssen has the brick-solid mezzo that is required to stand up to the volume produced by orchestra, chorus and other soloists. The young tenor, Kenneth Gayle, sang his difficult, ungrateful lines with fervor, poise and lovely tone, finessing the ascending phrase at the conclusion of his solo which usually emerges as a strangulated bleat. Here, it was well and truly sung. While the bass solo part is most often best assigned to a true bass or bass-baritone, Gerard Sundberg had the power, incisiveness and handsome tone to make a galvanizing statement of his entire part. Beginning with his fistshaking recitative, Sundberg made of his solo and ensemble work an imposing statement.

And what of the chorus? Austin Boncher had pulled together a remarkable body of community singers, molding them into an ideal chorus for this work whose challenges are little short of cruel. Again, musical types were quick to remark afterward that this was a chorus to set alongside the best they had ever heard. Massive, fleet-footed sound, close attention to detail and ultra-clear articulation of the text stamped the choristers' contribution as stellar. Thus ended a platinum-standard season for the FVSO. Groner has now brought his players to such a high level that nothing seems too far a stretch for them and the regional community has, in turn, packed the house, responding with loud encomiums.

If this is not success, we can't imagine what is.

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