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Symphony Concert a Dazzling Display of Talents

Apr. 6, 2009

By James Chaudoir
For the Post-Crescent

The Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Brian Groner played its fourth subscription concert Saturday night to a full house at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center. Though curious in its program, there was something to please all in attendance.

American composer Michael Daugherty is known for his infusion of rock and other pop styles into his compositions. Route 66 is no exception. It is scored for large orchestra with an augmented percussion section. A novel and entertaining work, it was well played and proved to be a spirited opener for the concert.

Violinist Wen-Lei Gu was featured soloist in Niccolo Pagannini's First Violin Concerto. Pagannini, the virtuoso's virtuoso of violin writing, fully demonstrated his knowledge of the instrument's capabilities in this demanding concerto, creating a challenge that was equally met by Gu. From start to finish, Gu displayed her technical mastery of the violin. Her tone is rich and powerful, carrying to the heights of the auditorium. Add to that impeccable intonation and dazzling skills with the bow, and it is easy to understand how she can master this concerto with apparent ease.

Pagannini gives all the attention to the soloist in his concerti allowing little time for the soloist to rest and gather thoughts before the next entry. Another challenge equally met by Gu. At all times she exhibited utmost confidence and musicianship. A standing ovation showed the audiences approval.

The second half of the program was comprised of one piece, Moussargsky's piano masterpiece, "Pictures at an Exhibition," as orchestrated by Maurice Ravel. When one listens to this work, one must be careful to separate the two, as the orchestrated version should be viewed as a separate and distinct piece. Though there are other orchestrations, the Ravel is the one of choice to both conductors and orchestras.

It was in this work that Groner's skill with the baton came to the fore. A deceptively difficult work, "Pictures" requires constant vigilance on the part of all on stage. Ravel's mastery of orchestral color is a undeniable factor as one listens and absorbs the beauty of this piece. In addition, the listener is treated to solos by unfamiliar instruments, the alto saxophone in the movement "The Old Castle" and the euphonium in "Bydlo," both eloquently played. The delightful "Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells" was played with much expression and accuracy, one of my favorite movements of the score.

At first, I questioned Groner's somewhat quick tempos, but as the piece unfolded, they began to make sense, especially when arriving at the penultimate movement, "The Hut of Baba-Yaga." The playing in this movement was intense and vigorous leading ideally into the grandiose finale, "The Great Gate of Kiev" with all its sonic majesty.

James Chaudoir is a music professor at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. He can be reached at pcfeatures@ postcrescent.com.

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