Concert Review: RSO offers memorable evening

The Rockford Symphony’s glorious music filled the Coronado Saturday, Nov. 19, but the real answer to this reporter’s “who, why, when, how—etc.” has to go way back, much earlier this year (or last), when Maestro Steven Larsen’s own ingenuity and resourcefulness saw the programming possibilities of gathering a crack pianist and others. David Gross—along with the Mendelssohn Chorale, trained by Director Martha Bein, and a troupe of soloists, brought together the repertoire choices that made Saturday specially memorable.

Opening with Mozart’s familiar Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, a visit to the clear-cut classic formality of the 18th-century salon, the program continued with a sharp contrast in Shostakovich’s First Concerto for Piano and Trumpet, featuring world-renowned pianist David Gross, with RSO’s own Mark Baldin on the trumpet turning it into a dialogue, within the loosely structured work, which still hung together in a swift four-movement format. Then, the Mendelssohn Chorale (and four soloists) celebrated with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ever-enchanting, dreamlike Serenade to Music, a setting of text from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. To finish, David Gross came back to join the orchestra, soloists and chorus for the Beethoven Fantasy for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra, which stood clearly as an early draft leading to his Ninth Symphony 15 years later.

The six fine vocal soloists for the Vaughan Williams and the Beethoven were: sopranos Sarah Hibbard and Diane Kramer; mezzo Tracy Watson; tenors William Watson and Dennis Johnson; and baritone Stephen Swanson.

The Shostakovich Concerto, new to this reviewer, was an early work (1923) that played tricks with its tonalities, settling the listener into one clear position, then tossing in notes that made us go “ooops!” before returning to an entirely different key, while the trumpet (originally meant to be the featured instrument) every now and then cut in with its own melodic statements to assert itself. The pianist’s hands were often a blur as they tore across the keyboard to match the composer’s intentions. The trumpet’s extended melodic lines in the second movement, the piano’s misty impressionism in the third, and the assorted tributes to other composers’ themes in the fourth movement kept the performance interesting and yet easy to follow.

Vaughan Williams was financially independent, and thus was able to compose for his own satisfaction, and he left no doubt that beauty was his primary goal. The caressing sounds of the opening orchestral passages, enriched by the use of the harp, and then the smooth chorus, so well prepared by Martha Bein, carried me off into the musical trance that is sometimes my good fortune, while the text reminded us all that:

“The man that hath no music in himself… is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils. Let no such man be trusted!”

And then Beethoven, to round off the evening. How often have we been asked to lament the deaf composer’s plight at not being able to hear his Ninth Symphony? Well, I am sure that this “Fantasy” can be perceived as a first draft of the Ninth, and that Ludwig had 15 years of hearing the Ninth Symphony as it developed in his musical mind.

The solo piano at the opening is more like one of Beethoven’s early sonatas, and such a contrast to the piano’s sounds in the Shostakovich. David Gross certainly looked as if he enjoyed putting the two works together in one program, for the musical contrast, as well as the pianistic variety. At its first performance, it is said that the piano parts were not yet written down, so the composer took the keyboard and improvised throughout. What an evening that must have been!

After the extended opening passage on the piano, different voices in the orchestra are given their turns, a flute melody supported only by a solid bass line from the piano; two sets of horns, the second set echoing the first as if from a great distance; eventually, after an almost military horn passage, the chorus joins in once more, for a ringing crescendo to remind us of “the gifts of high art; when love and power unite, almighty grace endows mankind.”

David Gross was originally trained in his native Germany, then took his graduate degrees at Yale and the University of Illinois, and now continues a solid concert career while on the faculty of Furman University in Greenville, S.C.

From the Nov. 23-29, 2005, issue

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