Rockford Symphony explores impressions and impressionism

Rockford Symphony explores impressions and impressionism

By Georgia Pampel

By Georgia Pampel

Music Critic

The Coronado rang out Saturday night, Jan. 26, as an enhanced Rockford Symphony Orchestra and Pianist Dickran Atamian gave us an evening of both delights and challenges, led by Steven Larsen.

The program opened with the overture to Richard Wagner’s opera, The Flying Dutchman, now certainly an old “warhorse” in the repertoire, familiar to all, with its easily accepted themes—rollicking sea chanteys, the love of a good maiden and convincing atmospheric impressions of a storm tossing the hapless vessel on threatening waves. Wagner conceptualized his operatic works in the most grandiose fashion (remember the Finale of Gotterdammerung, with Valhalla in flames, crashing into the flooded Rhine River while the Rhine Maidens swim around down below, and the Valkyries ride through the air above on horseback?). Well, Dutchman foreshadows that sort of ambition, as the ship founders, and the musical dynamic ranges from the softest piano to a fortissimo that could blast us all back out onto Main Street. Throughout the overture, the melodies came forth strong and clear, and it set challenging pace for the evening to come.

While latecomers found their seats, the orchestra milled around onstage to make a pathway for the concert grand to be brought to the fore. Chicago-born Dickran Atamian, a winner of the prestigious Naumburg Competition (along with numerous other prizes), now focuses his career on concertos, offering a choice of 12 this season, 10 of them drawn from the conventional classical “greats,” plus Aram Khachaturian’s only piano concerto, and Serge Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, which was our treat Saturday.

Originally premiered with the Chicago Symphony in 1921, with the composer at the keyboard, this concerto merges the then-experimental modern idiom with lush melodic episodes, driving rhythms and intense passions, resulting in a work that has become an audience favorite in the 20th century repertoire.

Atamian has enormous energy and pours it all forth to do justice to the Prokofiev, sometimes appearing to levitate, other times nearly falling off the piano bench while running the keyboard from end to end. Clearly living the music every moment, whether sitting at rest or playing, he attacks the piano like a man possessed. It becomes irrelevant to ask if he hits any wrong notes. Who could tell, when the fingers fly that fast? The pulse of the music drives it forward, and Atamian’s intensity and dedication convince the ear that the notes are (amazingly) all there, and all exactly what the composer called for. In the second movement, he shifts into another mode, to do justice to the more lyrical themes, showing that while he can pounce on the piano as if it were the enemy, he can equally caress it as a lover. At the end, he had a big bear hug for Steve Larsen, to celebrate their triumph, while the audience rose in tribute, calling Atamian forth again and again with their applause.

In his pre-concert lecture, Larsen spoke of the orchestra and the piano “fighting” each other in the third movement, before resolving the question of what key to play in. Clearly, Atamian and Larsen felt that they had reached a heartfelt truce, to celebrate a clear dual victory.

In the second half of the program, however, this music reporter ran into some dilemmas, as both Dana Paul Perna’s musical essay “Prouts Neck” in its Midwest premiere, and Claude Debussy’s “La Mer”, written nearly a century earlier, reached out to convey the composer’s impressions of fog, mist, surging waves and sparkling surf, achieving their effects by instrumental combinations and swirling musical lines.

I enjoyed the sounds in both works, but kept reaching for something more to hold in memory. (I had listened to the Debussy several times during the week in preparation, but still could not recognize it or name favorite passages, even though my source book of musical themes identifies 11 separate melodic motifs in the Debussy.) Larsen calls it “one of the great orchestral works of all times.” I guess I’ll have to listen to it a few more times to make it my own, but Saturday night’s audience rewarded the ensemble with its usual tumultuous applause, which often seems to be both for the specific work and for the welcome evening of well-chosen musical essays.

Composer Dana Paul Perna, a long-time friend of Larsen’s, was on hand to hear “Prouts Neck” in its second concert presentation ever, and he explained its origins when he joined Larsen for the pre-concert talk. He often visited grandparents in Rochester, New York, where he became a fan of marine painter Winslow Homer. Eventually, he tried to translate his impressions of Homer into a musical expression, which he calls a “symphonic essay” rather than a tone poem, since most tone poems derive from a written source—Don Quixote, Don Juan, Zarathustra, etc. Often, several separate voices would weave in and out, and just as the ocean’s waves can be unpredictable, just so did this work sometimes seem to reach a final climax, only to surge on in a new direction.

With a relatively brief piece such as this, totally unfamiliar, it could be interesting to consider doing what sometimes works well, programming it immediately before the intermission, then encoring immediately after the intermission, to give the listeners a second chance at it. Until that happens, we just have to mark our calendars to listen to WNIU when, I believe, they will broadcast the taped concert on radio, Monday, Feb. 18 (as usual, the Monday night before the next classical concert).

In the meantime, the Prokofiev played on and on in my head throughout the night. But I promise to work harder on making the Debussy more familiar, OK?

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