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FVSO Plays to Their Strenghts

Jan. 26, 2013

An interesting mix of music awaited those in attendance Saturday as the Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra presented its third subscription concert of the season. It was an evening of skilled orchestral playing coupled with magnificent featured soloists, an excellent blend for musical enjoyment.

Opening the program at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in downtown Appleton was a short three-movement "Suite on Children's Themes," by native Appleton composer LaVahn Maesch. The work was light, filled with clever rhythmic gestures, and wonderfully orchestrated with numerous solos tossed throughout the orchestra.

Two works by Benjamin Britten completed the first half. "In memoriam Dennis Brain," scored for four horns and strings with percussion received its American premiere. The performance featured the symphony’s horn section. An unfinished work, two completed sections exist: Slow – Moderately Quick. Brief as they are, they form a deeply emotional and inspirational tribute to the renowned horn player who died at the height of his career in 1957.

"Nocturne" for tenor voice, horn and strings represents some of Britten's writing at its finest. This beautiful cycle of songs places technical demands on all performers, soloists and ensemble alike.

The solos were performed with skill, and insight by featured artists Steven Spears, tenor, and Kelly Hofman, horn. Spears' voice was even, with exceptional clarity and projection. His ability to blend, as well as rise above the ensemble, created a superb vocal interpretation. At all times he was in absolute control of the work.

The same can be said for hornist Kelly Hofman. Britten’s writing calls for the entire range of the horn, including those extreme highs and lows that require such technical control. Hofman was capable of mastering all the coloristic demands scored by Britten.
The strings of the symphony completed the third musical element of the piece. Once again, the section came through with exquisite playing, meeting every nuance of Britten’s score, be it coming to the fore, or in support of the two soloists.

Of particular note was the drama and ensemble work in the Nocturne movement, the haunting Dirge with its extremes of range for the horn, Spears' handling of the incessant repetitions of the melody in Hymn, and the finesse with which he mastered the melismas in Sonnet. In all, it was a praise-worthy performance.

The second half was devoted, in its entirety, to the Violin Concerto in B minor by Edward Elgar. This massive three-movement concerto, though not frequently performed, can still be considered among the masterpieces of the violin literature. It demands tremendous technical skill, a deep understanding of the work as a whole, and the ability to penetrate through the large orchestra for which it is scored. All these demands were met, and more, by violin soloist Win Lei Gu.

The main element of Elgar's concerto is its rich musical content. This is not only for the orchestration, but also a primary element in the solo violin part as well. Gu's approach to the concerto was one of acceptance, working with the orchestra, and then to soar to the heights of the instrument when allowed to escape from the multitude of instruments surrounding her.

The moments in which the solo violin is not playing seemed to be few and far between. This could easily become overly demanding of the soloist, not so with Gu. I was so impressed with her ability to hold her own, and function within the many layers of sound so as to create her own musical tapestry, always present, always in command, always to the forefront of musical interpretation.

The prevailing tone of the concerto is one of extreme somberness, not truly obtaining a gesture of spirited writing until the final movement. Also, though the effect of a cadenza is implied upon occasion, one does not occur until the latter passages of the final movement, and even this is partially accompanied.

Gu's interpretation allowed the solo violin to break this darkness with the brightness of her playing. At times rising to the upper limits of the fingerboard, while at other times drawing upon the rich color of the low G string, then darting masterfully over passages in harmonics, and later stating a theme in multiple stops, she demonstrated all the instrument had to offer, bringing the concerto to life and displaying an artistry that is rare and welcome.

The Elgar is truly a wonderful concerto, one that progresses from beginning to end with increased animation and color; one that calls for deep musical skills of a soloist like no other. Gu's interpretation reflected all of this to the highest level.

— James Chaudoir

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