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FVSO plays a pleasing mix of familiar and unfamiliar works

Nov. 3, 2012

James Chaudoir, Post-Crescent

A pleasing mix of familiar and unfamiliar works awaited those in attendance at Saturday night’s Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra performance.

Opening the program was J.S. Bach's orchestral Suite in D Major. This delightful work follows closely the concept of the Baroque suite, with a slight variation in the dance movements selected.

The Overture offered a grand opening with high pitch trumpets scored in a most ceremonial manner. This was followed by a calming "Air" whose familiar theme is the well-known "Air on a G String".

The remaining three movements comprised the dance elements of the suite, two Gavottes performed in the traditional A-B-A manner, a Bourrée, and closing with a spirited Gigue. In all, a well played rendering of the suite.

It’s not every day that one gets the opportunity to hear a serious concert work for the harmonica, much less a concerto written for the instrument. Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos wrote his Concerto for Harmonica and Orchestra in 1955.

This, of course, is not the first time that a composer has introduced what is traditionally a folk instrument to the concert stage, as a complement to orchestral instruments. What is exciting about this concept is that it puts, in this case the harmonica, into a new light of understanding and appreciation.

Harmonica virtuoso Robert Bonfiglio was the concerto's featured soloist. His flair in bringing out Villa-Lobos' subtle intricacies was masterful. Mr. Bonfiglio undoubtedly has a complete understanding of this concerto.

Scored in three movements, fast-slow-fast, the concerto offered all that was to be expected in a modern work. What undoubtedly struck me foremost was the extensive chromatic nature of the solo part. Mr. Bonfiglio's technical facility with the harmonica made this look easy. In addition, he made full use of other coloristic aspects of the instrument, vibrato, shading, and extreme dynamic control.

A cadenza in the final movement allowed Mr. Bonfiglio to further show his virtuosic skills.

Indeed, the concerto was a colorful piece in which Villa-Lobos took full advantage of the characteristics of this "unusual" concert instrument, and by using an orchestra of reduced winds, was able to paint a wonderful mural of sound and color.

The concert was capped off with an outstanding performance of Johannes Brahms’ magnificent and intense Symphony No. 1 in C minor. The musical world had to wait a long time for Brahms to complete, or even start, this great work, as it came well into his compositional career. After the mighty first, he went on to compose three more creating an unforgettable cycle of four symphonies.

Opening with bold harmonies and a pounding "heart beat" in the tympani, the mood is set for what can easily be considered Brahms as his most calculated and impassioned scoring to date. In all of his symphonic compositions, he has this uncanny ability to maximize orchestral color without the over-extension of instruments. What we see on stage is the classical orchestra with only the trombones and a contra-bassoon to fill out the bottom range.

The first symphony is a tour-de-force of orchestral color, as well as a veritable feast of solos for the principal players. Solos abounded, especially in the lovely second movement. Kudos go out to noted principals; oboist Jennifer Bryan, flutist Linda Nelson Korducki, clarinetist Christopher Zello, hornist Bruce Atwell, and concertmaster Yuliya Smead for their careful attention, and lovely interpretations of their moments in the spotlight.

In the world of classical music, generic tempo markings such as allegro, andante, etc., can cover a wide range of metronomic marks. As a consequence it is easy to understand how the exact tempo could then make, or break, a performance. I must say that Maestro Brian Groner's tempos were "spot on".

The manner in which the orchestra flowed from section to section, tempo to tempo, through the various bits of Brahmsian rhythmic trickery, subtle gestures, and bold orchestral moments was simply staggering. Groner's intimate knowledge of the score, along with his skill with the baton, made this symphony come alive.

When I think of the first symphony of Brahms, two particular spots in the score quickly come to mind. One is in the second movement where Brahms comes up with a stroke of genius in orchestration. In the lengthy solo given to the principal first violinist, Brahms chooses to add the French horn to double this solo below the range of the violin., one of the more sumptuous moments in music. The performance was breathtaking.

The second is the glorious chorale tune first played by the trombones in the last movement and powerfully brought back again at the end with the entire brass section. Both of these sections came off in a superb manner, as did the entire symphony. Good job!

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