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FVSO Gave Brian Groner a fitting farewell

May 2, 2018

Published in the Post Crescent
Written by Christopher Profit

Wednesdays with the Fox Valley Symphony are always a treat. Why Wednesdays? Because many of the world’s best soloists will often fill their mid-week schedule with smaller venues like our Fox Cities Performing Arts Center and move on to larger concert halls on the weekends.

For local concert-goers, this means access to world-class talent, with famed violinist Joshua Bell as the most recent virtuoso to grace our PAC stage.

Last week's concert was a memorable night for many reasons: Joshua Bell, of course, but it was a night of heartfelt gratitude for the 23-year tenure of maestro Brian Groner. It marked the end of a terrific run for him and for the symphony, and the audience let their appreciation be known from the start.

On to the program. Hector Berlioz’s Overture to The Roman Carnival was energetic, rhythmically tight, and wonderfully balanced. The English horn solo (a spotlight feature) was expressive and lush – brava Leslie Michelic.

Then came a real treat from Minnesota composer Libby Larsen, her De Trois world premiere commissioned and premiered by the Fox Valley Symphony in tribute to Maestro Groner’s career. It was splendid, colorful with hints of minimalism, and strong sectional writing for brass (more on that in a minute).

Violinist Joshua Bell’s appearance was heralded by the audience with a rousing welcome, a homecoming of sorts for Bell who first played with the FVSO nearly 30 years ago. What can I say that hasn’t already been said? He is arguably the most heralded violinist on the planet (with deference to a recent visit with the FVSO by Itzhak Perlman, which makes our stage 2-for-2 in two years).

Bell’s Saint-Saëns Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso was crisp, playful, and the interaction with the orchestra was refreshing. Honestly, his playing is nothing short of ridiculous – I mean it’s breathtaking, mind-bendingly great, and makes most musicians wonder where they went wrong. The audience ate it up, and Bell was just getting started.

Hess’ Fantasy from Ladies in Lavender was lush and warm, a stark contrast to the Sarasate Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Wisdom) which demonstrated double stops, double stop trills, skip bowing, left-hand pizzicatos — the kitchen sink of showmanship. There’s only one Joshua Bell — he IS the violin, he is music, and he was ours until intermission.

The second half, Groner’s farewell, featured Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 in D minor. It was a great finish to an unheard of 23-year tenure and demonstrated some of the finest ensemble playing I’ve heard from the FVSO in a long time. In particular, the brass sectional work was better than ever: the crescendos were lively (but never brash), the horns and trombones were especially tight, and the low brass — tuba and bass trombone — provided a solid foundation. Kudos especially to the trumpets: Henckel, Skelton, Robinson and Granatella, you deserve our ovation.

Bell notwithstanding, last week's ensemble exceeded my expectations for symphonic playing in our community. Every section was solid in its own right, but as an ensemble, they’ve never played better. As a tribute to Brian Groner’s quadranscentennial of live classical music, the Fox valley Symphony Orchestra succeeded in offering a capstone performance to be proud of.

I certainly was.

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