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Symphony performance deserving of love

Feb. 7, 2015

by James Chaudoir, Post Crescent

Valentine’s Day came early for those who attended Saturday’s program by the Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra, titled, “Symphonic Romance.”

The concert at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in Appleton opened with a moving performance of Richard Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll.” Though originally scored for an ensemble of 13 solo instrumentalists, the version performed in this program was with a full complement of strings.

The violins open the piece with a gentle octave leap and are immediately joined by the rest of the string section who set the melodic character and harmonic tone of the music. It is not until about two minutes into the work before the winds begin to enter, at first in an obbligato role, and then coming to the fore.

The orchestra’s performance was moving, tender, and with much eloquence, truly fitting the distinctive character of Wagner’s score.

Romantic connection? Wagner composed “Siegfried Idyll” as a birthday/Christmas gift for his wife Cosima on her 33rd birthday. It was first performed on the morning of Christmas Day, 1870.

Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet Overture – Fantasy” is quite the tour-de-force in orchestral writing, and a stirring contrast to Wagner’s work, which opened the program.

Though primarily known for its famous “love theme,” there is so much more in the work to be heard. A challenging piece, both musically and technically, the orchestra was up for the task, providing all the tension and drama that the score demands.

Maestro Brian Groner’s knowledge of the score provided keen insight into Tchaikovsky’s intricate orchestrational details. The musicians followed his direction closely and to the point, never wavering, performing with rhythmic clarity, while creating the multiple hues of orchestral color set forth by the composer.

Be it passages of quiet chords, rhythmic energy filled with brass and percussion, or the unrestrained, broad melodic gestures in the return of the stirring “love theme,” this was indeed a stirring performance of this magnificent piece of music.

During intermission, the winner of the Fox Valley Symphony Youth Orchestras ensemble competition, a brass quintet called “No Strings Attached,” performed their competition piece for the audience. As always, it is good to hear the future of our music community in performance. Congratulations to all who participated.

Gerald Finzi’s “Romance,” Op. 11, provided a bit of a respite from the larger works programmed for the evening. Scored for strings alone, it is composed very much in the style of other well-known string orchestra works by English composers of the twentieth-century, namely Elgar and Vaughan Williams.

The beauty of this piece is the way Finzi utilizes the strings, by dividing the voices into multiple parts, scoring one player on a part, and writing extended passages for violin solo. The solo passages were exquisitely played by concert master Yuliya Smead.

The final work of the evening was a riveting performance of Leonard Bernstein’s exciting “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.” Again, we turn to the Romeo and Juliet story, but this time, rival gangs of New York City replace the Montagues and the Capulets.

The Symphonic Dances flow as one continuous piece taking the listener through many of the familiar tunes from the musical, while focusing on the rhythmic differences of each. Extra percussion, and a saxophone were brought on stage for the performance.

Opening with the “Prologue,” the spirit of the piece is set, with the sense of jazz and dance prevailing, finger snapping and all. We hear “Maria” in cha-cha rhythm, “Mambo,” “Cool” and a dramatic scoring of “Somewhere” as the music unfolds.

After hearing the Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, it is hard to imagine how that performance could have been surpassed; this did it. The orchestra was totally focused and played with exceptional precision, and was never in doubt as to what was demanded of their skills.

Again, Groner’s brilliant conducting held the orchestra tight, and allowed the music to resound to its fullest.

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