FVSO opens 48th season strong
Oct. 4, 2014
By: James Chaudoir, Post Crescent
The Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra kicked off its 48th concert season with a fascinating program of challenging music. This concert also marked the beginning of Maestro Brian Groner’s 20th year as conductor.
Opening the program was a spirited performance of Johann Strauss, Jr.’s delightful “Overture to Die Fledermaus.” The overture is filled with an assortment of tunes that audiences have come to associate with the composer.
Attention was quickly turned to the feature work of the first half, “Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major” by Sergei Prokofiev, featuring guest artist Claire Huangci. The youthful Huangci wowed the audience with her seemingly effortless mastery of Prokofiev’s massive and demanding opus.
The first movement opens with a simply stated yet tuneful solo by the clarinet, played eloquently by principal clarinetist David Bell. This tune quickly gives way to the strings, but the melodic serenity is suddenly ended with the arrival of the allegro section in the strings and the first entry of the solo piano. It was at this point the Ms. Huangci clearly let her presence be known.
Be it brilliant scalar passages or bursts of rhythmic energy, Huangci’s clarity of line was always at the forefront. In addition, she has the ability to skillfully execute the intricate weavings of the piano line within Prokofiev’s constantly shifting density of orchestral structure.
Two things stood out: her precise touch at the keyboard and expert blending of dynamics, a wonderful fusion of technique and artistry.
The second movement is a set of variations, which opens with the orchestra playing the main theme, a curiously witty melody first heard in the winds. The variations feature the solo piano. It is here where Prokofiev deviates from the gavotte feeling of the theme.
Huangci undoubtedly had a clear understanding of the personality of each variation and showed it in her playing, be it the gossamer trill and glissando that opens the first variation, the rapid scalar runs up and down the keyboard in the second, the wildly syncopated and angular gestures of the third, the beautiful free dialogue between piano and orchestra in the fourth or the frenetic pacing of the final. All these personalities were distinctly executed at the keyboard, making the movement all the more exciting.
The quiet ending of the second movement merges attaca to the finale, Allegro, ma non troppo. Groner’s opening tempo was quite deliberate, adhering closely to the “but not too much” advice of the tempo marking.
Unquestionably, this is the true virtuoso movement of the concerto, with multiple climaxes and a brilliant ending. It was also here where Ms. Huangci demonstrated her technical skills to the fullest.
The coda is a musical confrontation between the orchestra and soloist, with both vying for compositional importance. Huangci’s energy and concentration allowed her to handle the complex ornamentation, arpeggios, glissandos and other flourishes while cutting through the massive orchestra. Four lively chords scored for piano and orchestra together bring the concerto to a dramatic close.
Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major (Eroica)” comprised the second half of the evening’s program. As we’ve become accustomed to appreciate over the years, Groner’s vision and execution of this masterwork was complete, thought-provoking, and most of all, musical.
The opening of this symphony never ceases to put a smile on my face, two marked E-flat major chords, and a gloriously simple arpeggiation of the tonic triad … so simple, so lyrical, so Beethoven.
Groner’s tempo choice unquestionably played into the heartfelt interpretation of the opening movement. Within the orchestra, the balance of the strings was particularly notable.
The haunting, well-known funeral march theme of the second movement, Adagio assai, is first heard played by the cellos and then given to the solo oboe, played beautifully by principal oboist Jennifer Hodges-Bryan. Also present in this movement was the use of fugue-like passages in the middle section. Groner’s ideal choices of tempos and dynamics made the performance of this movement contributed to its success.
The third movement is an animated scherzo, filled with rhythmic energy, and a glorious passage of hunting calls heard in the horn section. The orchestra, and especially the horns, played expressively, paying careful attention to each of Groner’s gestures from the podium.
The finale, Allegro molto, offered another set of variations for the evening. The movement itself is quite grandiose, and shows the direction Beethoven is moving regarding importance of the symphonic finale.
Again, Groner was at his best with his conducting, just the right tempo, energy, and clear identity to each of the thematic variations. All of these elements led to the orchestra’s rendering a meaningfully expressive performance of Beethoven’s masterwork.