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Symphony Shows off Rising Stars and Itself

Feb. 4, 2008

By James Chaudoir
For The Post-Crescent

The Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra played its third subscription concert Saturday night at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center to a large and enthusiastic crowd. The program offered quite the variety in content and style.

Opening the concert was Mark O'Connor's "Americana Symphony," a piece commissioned by a consortium of orchestras, including the FVSO. Perhaps the strongest moment in O'Connor's six-movement piece was in the last movement where he allowed the richer sonorities of the orchestra to finally come out in their full splendor.

Attention was next turned to the two young "rising stars" featured, soprano Alisa Jordheim and pianist Nathan Birkolz, both of Appleton. The joy of listening to such youthful talent is twofold. First, one gets to hear performance ability from an artist well advanced for their years, and secondly, one can't help but wonder as to how this person's career will evolve and develop.

Jordheim, a senior at Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, performed Mozart's much-beloved "Exaltate, Jubilate." From start to finish, Jordheim displayed a clarity of voice throughout her entire range with clean articulation, diction and vocal projection. She effortlessly touched upon the high notes and sang the low pitches with confidence. I was particularly taken with her interpretation of the recitative: Fulget amica dies; strong, emotional and musical while her singing of the following aria Tu virginum corona provided the perfect balance. In the concluding Alleluia! she mastered the numerous running passages like a seasoned professional. The audience awarded her with a standing ovation.

Nathan Birkolz, who is finishing his doctorate in piano at the University of Illinois, gave a stunning performance of Liszt's "Totentanz." Leave it to Liszt to turn what may be the most well-known theme in Gregorian chant, the Dies irae, into a veritable tour-de-force for piano and orchestra.

Birkholz masterfully worked his way through each successive virtuosic passage. The sensitivity of his musicianship was noted in the first solo interlude where he offered one colorfully expressed gesture after another. The "Totentanz" builds throughout its duration offering little rest for performer. Birkholz met the challenge and exceeded it.

The piece concluded with a thundering ovation by the audience.

Concluding the evening's program was Richard Strauss' "Death and Transfiguration" for orchestra. Rare are the moments when we, the concert audience, get to hear a Strauss work in live performance, especially from a smaller orchestra like the FVSO. Strauss is a composer who demands a conductor with both skill of the baton and mastery of the score. Brian Groner proved to be one of these conductors. His unwavering insight into Strauss' opus was apparent from the opening downbeat.

At no time did the orchestra lose sight of what he was creating from the podium. The work opens with smooth strings carefully doubled with woodwinds and brass, a shimmering effect. After this solemn beginning, a "shot" from the timpani sends the orchestra into the heroic Strauss that has made his tone-poems so famous. The playing was tight and expressive, each performer meeting the demands of the score. Solo passages abounded throughout the orchestra, and all were expertly negotiated.

The highlight of the work comes toward the end where the strings begin a series of heavenly rising lines, layered up layer, setting up the marvelously written coda. A glorious piece and an exquisite performance.

It's one of those works that makes you forget everything that came before. Bravo.

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