Symphony delivers strong, eclectic performance
Nov. 20, 2016
James Chaudoir, Community columnist for the Post Crescent
An eclectic mix of pieces awaited the audience as it gathered to hear the Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra’s November program on Saturday night.
Opening the concert was Fanfare for Four Horns composed by principal hornist Bruce Atwell, and played by the members of the orchestra’s horn section. An adaptation of a movement from his Horn Quartet No. 1, Atwell’s “Fanfare” fully utilized the wide range of the modern double-horn, and introduced extra color by utilizing harmonies developed on the overtones of the natural horn. These were most evident in some of the beautiful chords featured at pivotal points during the composition. A frolicking piece with a hint of hunting horns, it proved to be a fitting opening for the concert.
Two concertos for double bass completed the first half of the concert, both performed by guest solo bassist Edgar Meyer. Though not the instrument we generally associate with string concertos, Meyer’s virtuosic performances demonstrated that it clearly has a rightful place in the repertory.
Concerto No. 2 in B minor, written by the nineteenth century composer and double bass virtuoso Giovanni Bottesini, was the first to be played. Scored for solo double bass with string accompaniment, this concerto is standard repertory for double bass players.
The opening movement, Allegro, featured lyrical playing, and smooth sounds from both the soloist and the orchestra. I was taken by the different colors Meyer drew from his instrument, subtle, yet distinct. The harmonics were particularly rich and vibrant. The soft second movement, Andante, was lovely, and offered a gentle balance between soloist and accompaniment. The final movement, Allegro, was the most energetic of the three, and offered numerous rapid passages for the soloist, easily mastered by Meyer.
Meyer wrote both cadenzas for this concerto, where he kept true to the style of Bottesini while featuring moments of both romantic lyricism and modernity. Particularly in the final cadenza, we heard his masterful technique in beautifully executed trills, and sonorous double stops, as well as wide melodic leaps, demonstrating the astonishingly large range of the instrument.
Meyer’s own Concerto in D Major followed, and was a startling contrast to the Bottesini. This sudden shift in musical style demonstrated just how adaptable the double bass is as a concert instrument. Present in this composition are elements of folk, jazz, modern classical music. The string section is joined by a small section of 10 woodwind instruments that is used sparingly, yet most thoughtfully.
The solo bass opens the first movement, and is then joined by members of the bass section of the orchestra. We hear sliding passages played by the soloist with rhythmic interjections provided by the section members. As other members of the orchestra enter, we hear several pointillistic figures, adding to the rhythmic pulse. Meyer’s playing was both masterful and animated, moving effortlessly through the many phases of the movement.
The second movement was scored in three-part form, with the melodiously calm outer sections, being interrupted by a brief, though faster and rousing middle section. It was the two outer sections that I found quite charming, especially the duet passages that featured principal clarinetist Chris Zello in the first, and principal oboist Jennifer Hodges Bryan in the second playing with the solo bass. These duets demanded careful listening between the soloists, resulting in music of absolute beauty.
Meyer aptly describes the final movement as a “fiddle tune”. This movement displayed rhythmic energy, and allowed Meyer to show off his extraordinary talents with the bow, playing intricate passages, and crystalline harmonics. The concerto offers much to the listener, brought to life by a wonderful performance with the composer as artist.
The second half of the concert featured one work, Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life), Op. 40, by Richard Strauss. Brian Groner’s precise direction guided the players effortlessly through this massive masterwork.
The primary theme first appears in the cellos and encompasses the range in excess of three octaves. This grandiose theme occurs frequently throughout either in part, or in its entirety. Other identifiable themes are to follow, including some from Strauss’ other works.
With expanded woodwind and brass sections, and the presence of two harps, massive blends of orchestral sound are generated from the composer’s pen. Groner and the musicians easily played through these large sections with ease, and accuracy.
In the third movement, this large orchestral sound is reduced to a single line, an extensive violin solo, beautifully played by concertmaster Yuliya Smead.
As the work develops, Groner and the orchestra never lose sight of the task at hand and continue to meet one challenge after the next, much like the character in the tone
From soloist to full orchestra, from the softest of dynamics to fullest forte, slow to fast, and any additional manners of orchestral extremes, this was indeed an excellent performance.
Featured during the performance were art examples from local elementary school students as part of Big Arts in the Little Apple project.