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Symphony wraps season in Fine form

May 8, 2017

The Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra was joined by the Appleton-based choral ensemble newVoices for its 50th Season’s Grand Finale Saturday night. Together, they presented a pleasing performance of music by British composers.

Opening the program was Coronation Te Deum by William Walton. A master of writing for choirs, Walton skillfully worked his way through this lengthy text providing both moments of joyful exuberance and quiet tranquility. The orchestra and choir worked together effortlessly, bringing out all the intricate gestures employed within this delightful work. It is most unfortunate, however, that the organ part was played on an electronic keyboard.

“The Forgotten Rite,” a brief but lovely orchestral composition by John Ireland completed the first half of the program. Rather than hearing an orderly presentation of thematic material, we hear instead pillars of harmonic color, filled with emotion and mystery. The sound of the strings at the beginning was especially smooth, and beautifully in tune. The middle section provides us with the melodic moments that were mostly absent in the opening measures. These were notably heard played in the winds, particularly those by the horn, flute and clarinet. The quiet strains of the beginning return to close out the piece. Well deserved solo bows were given to Bruce Atwell, principal horn, Linda Nielsen Korducki, principal flute, and Christopher Zello, principal clarinet.

After intermission, the orchestra and chorus were joined on stage by vocal soloists Susan Nelson, soprano, and Keven Keys, baritone, to perform the featured work of the evening, A Sea Symphony by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Set to words of the great American poet Walt Whitman, this massive work, in addition to its vocal components, is scored for large orchestra with a full complement of winds, brass, percussion and two harps.

The symphony’s four movements utilize Whitman’s poetry to illustrate dual references; the sea in its natural grandeur, strength, and majesty, especially noted in the third movement, Scherzo, and also the sea in metaphor for the soul of man traveling into eternity, which is fully revealed in the final movement.


A grandiose tone is set from the opening with a heroic fanfare of brass and the choir singing Behold the sea itself. The music quickly subsides making way for the text to unfold, and for the introduction of our soloists. Baritone Keven Keys is the first to enter. His voice is of a clear quality, and he sings with impeccable diction. His presence with the orchestra is distinct and confident.

Later in the movement, soprano Susan Nelson enters, at first within the harmonic confines of the orchestra, from which she then ascends to a range all her own. Her voice is rich and pleasing, and well suited for the Vaughan Williams. It is always interesting how one moment in a piece can define the whole. For me, that occurred at the end of the first movement as Nelson rose to her final note, which she touched with absolute precision and held unwavering to its designated release… exquisite.

The second movement, On the beach at night, alone, was both moving and beautiful, especially in its glorious opening.

In the third movement, Scherzo, Vaughan Williams dramatically portrays imagery of the sea and its rolling waves. We also hear the return of the fanfare from the opening measures, along with bits of martial writing. It is also in this movement we find a good blend of choral writing styles with orchestration, from background to the fore.

The final movement, The Explorers, though quite lengthy, offered many moments of beauty. Two moments come to mind. The first being a passage Now first it seems … sung by the choir a cappella. Soft in dynamic, it formed this brief crystalline view of the true musicianship present in the members of newVoices, and not only that, we had the chance to hear it a second time a few measures further in the score. The other was with the two soloists singing in octaves O thou transcendent. … Here we heard the precision and compatibility of the voices as one, moving together in transcendent beauty.

The symphony closes with the strings trading melodic fragments, high to low, getting softer and softer until we only hear the sound of silence.

Much praise has to be given to Maestros Brian Groner, director of the Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra, and Phillip Swan, director of newVoices, for their collaborative work in preparing for this performance. A demanding piece from the beginning, but under the skillful direction of these two directors, it came off with much meaning and success

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