Larsen offers a sampling of soloists at the Coronado concert

Larsen offers a sampling of soloists at the Coronado concert

By Georgia Pampel

By Georgia Pampel

Music Critic

Saturday, Feb. 23, at the Coronado Theatre, the Rockford Symphony took a new turn with a program that led the audience in a tour around the musical spectrum. How often do we hear the contrabass — the violin-like instrument that is taller than the musician who plays it — play a solo passage? When did you last hear a cello solo, accompanied only by a harp, while the harp recalled the character of a Spanish guitar?

The “first chair” in each instrument had a private moment of glory, as Conductor Steven Larsen’s knowledgeable programming made the varied tones and textures the focus of the evening.

The evening opened with a Sinfonia by Giuseppe Torelli (1658-1709) which played two trumpets and two oboes over a simple string ensemble. As the trumpets of Torelli’s time did not yet have the valves that make our modern instruments more versatile, the writing places the trumpet lines in a high register, which was accommodated by using a smaller trumpet (called a “piccolo” trumpet). The trumpets entered a dialog with the oboes, the oboes sounding a softer echo to the trumpet lines. Supporting this, the string ensemble worked over a continuo bass line, with an interwoven counterpoint demonstrating the ways to rework and expand a brief melodic motif. These are altogether familiar sounds.

But when the next piece came on — the Variaciones Concertantes by Argentina- born Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983) — I found myself breathless and spellbound, following the varied (if brief) sections that highlighted first the cello/harp duo, then went around the stage to the flute, clarinet, viola, oboe, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, violin, horn, wind choir and contrabass, before winding up in a massive finale that engaged the whole orchestra with forceful driving rhythms and shifting accents to recall the composer’s Hispanic roots.

I had spent a week trying (in vain) to find some sort of recording of Ginastera to be better prepared to take in the concert. I had expected that his orientation would take us further into the experimental dissonance that so often characterizes his period. Maybe I’m getting more mellow, but it seemed that Ginastera managed to explore unfamiliar intervals in a way that still made musical sense. And the very quiet passages that spotlighted the soloists were an interesting way to exercise the ensemble. I guess I shall just have to continue my search for a CD or tape of the Ginastera, which I’d like to be able to hear over and over again.

After the intermission, Larsen programmed two versions of the same piece — a Ricercar by Bach, written originally for keyboard, but here transcribed for string ensemble, and then a second version orchestrated in the 1930s by Anton Webern (1883-1945), a devotee of Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg, of course, is best known for trying to break from conventional tonality by developing a mathematical 12-tone system which aimed at using all the notes equally rather than letting a central key dominate.

Webern took Bach’s notes, and rather than repeating the lines in the conventional way, he broke them into two- or three- note fragments. One instrument might take the first notes of a musical line, but another instrument would pick up the next few notes, and so on, resulting in a new texture that was puzzling but captivating. Larsen confided in the audience that his musicians were a bit taken aback when they first saw their scores, with all these scattered bits, but in the early rehearsal, he had half the orchestra play the conventional Bach, while the other half played the Webern fragments at the same time, and the musicians then could see clearly how the musical lines were actually the same, just conveyed in a new way.

The final tour de force was Igor Stravinsky’s suite from the ballet Pulcinella.

From 1913’s Rite of Spring, through to the 1920s, Stravinsky’s musical growth followed his various works for the ballet impresario Diaghilev. Some of his best-loved (and most performed) music is from this period, but usually exploring new harmonies and forms. In Pulcinella, however, at Diaghilev’s suggestion, he works with music then attributed to Pergolesi (1710-1736) though later shown to be mostly from a composer named Gallo. The young Pablo Picasso created the stage sets and costumes for the ballet, adding to a poignant regret that we can’t relive those moments. If your impression of Stravinsky is drawn from the near-barbaric grunts of the Rite of Spring, then Pulcinella clearly is a revelation of his other side, and his mastery of the musical line and the orchestral potential.

There were an unusual number of empty seats Saturday night. Whether people skipped the evening in order to go to Rockford’s annual Legal Follies or to stick to their plans to go South for February (to dodge the bitter Midwestern winter that never arrived). I can only advise those who missed this performance to be well advised to turn on WNIU on Monday, April 1, when the recorded concert will be broadcast.

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