Rockford Symphony fundraiser to support Sept. 11 victims

Rockford Symphony fundraiser to support Sept. 11 victims

By Georgia Pampel

By Georgia Pampel

Music Critic

The attack on America Sept. 11 seemed unreal at the time, and still is hard to “process,” as the new jargon would express it—but when Rockford Symphony Orchestra Director Steven Larsen read the Afghanis were not only killing American people on our home ground, but also planning to destroy all musical instruments in Afghanistan in order to kill music, that struck a nerve, and it had to be a call to action.

In short order, at the opening event of the classical concert series, Sept. 29, he announced his plans for a fundraiser Oct. 16 to support both heroes and victims in New York and Washington, D.C., the funds to be administered through a special channel of United Way.

The Coronado management agreed to provide the venue at no charge, and Larsen lined up an orchestra made up mostly of regulars, along with a few supplements from the stateline area, all volunteering their time (and talents). He then added 150 voices from Martha Bein’s Mendelssohn Chorale, plus Chicago Virtuoso Violinist Rachel Barton, who also volunteered her services, as she had for a recent benefit performance in Chicago.

There was a strong feeling of community in the whole production, set off in the first number, Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” Here, Larsen sheepishly admitted that the score called for three trumpets, and that night the orchestra only had two, so he would fill in himself, turning the baton over to RAYSO (Rockford Area Youth Symphony Orchestra) Conductor Hsien-Liang Lien.

The Fanfare opens with crashing percussion (kettle drums?) that called forth impressions of Sept. 11’s crashes, then alternated the percussion with a strong brass section, for a brief but emotional opening to the evening’s music. Copland, a native New Yorker, little dreamed that his music would carry on in these circumstances.

Returning to the podium with the casual comment that “My lip is shot!”, Larsen then turned to his string section for Samuel Barber’s haunting and subdued “Adagio for Strings,” where controlled dynamics offer a challenge to the ensemble. There is always a temptation to indulge in the rich sounds of the instruments, but in this work, keeping warmth in their tone without seeking brilliance, the musicians are not turned loose until the climactic lines that move into a high range for an intense release of the emotions that have been held in.

John Kleber, long-time Rockford resident and music activist, then took the stage to read playwright Arthur Miller’s brief essay, “Belief in America,” dating from 1941, in which Miller declares that “our diversity is a weapon!”

In tune with the community feeling at this event, the audience (led by the 150-voice Chorale) then sang a joyful “Happy Birthday to You” for Rachel Barton as she took the stage.

In what we may now term the “Doc Severinsen style,” she introduced each of her numbers with stories and details that helped bridge the gap between the stage and the audience. About Vivaldi, she admitted she was especially partial to him because he also had red hair, as does she. Preparing to offer Vivaldi’s “Autumn” from his “Four Seasons,” she described this work as celebrating the harvest in the first movement, with carousing over the feast and the wine, then resting to recover in the second movement, dreaming of the hunt to follow. The third movement was then broken into different motifs, representing the horses carrying their riders to the hunt, the running deer, the dogs, the guns, and finally the horses (and riders) trotting off after successfully downing a deer.

Commenting casually that the entire 8 p.m. concert was “put together in two hours, from five to seven,”she then gave us a set of variations by Nicolo Paganini, drawn from the melody “My Country ’Tis of Thee.” She reminded us of the particularly appropriate text from the third verse, which reminds us to “Let music swell the breeze, and ring from all the trees, sweet freedom’s song.” Paganini himself was so adept at violin virtuosity that he was suspected of being in league with the devil—and when trying to follow Barton’s fingering and bowing, we could understand the suspicion. Introducing the melody in solid double-stops, the score goes on to give the violinist every chance to demonstrate awesome dexterity along with musical competence.

She then left the stage (to catch her breath?) while the choir joined the orchestra to give us John Williams’ “Hymn to the Fallen” from the recent movie Saving Private Ryan. Using humming and single vowel sounds rather than text, the chorale became an orchestral instrument, in a very effective manner. The music combined elements of martial rhythms with mournful, descending melodic lines, to call forth the truths about war.

Barton then came back on stage, having changed from a rusty-gold lamé gown into a mass of bright red ruffles. She continued her share of the program with Massanet’s Meditation from “Thais,” Saint-Saens’ “Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso,” and a Fantasie on themes from Bizet’s Carmen, arranged by Franz Waxman. It was a rare opportunity to hear her perform such a variety, in a repertoire that called for the orchestra accompaniment. Too often, the soloist is heard only for a concerto with an orchestra or for a specifically personal concert with only a piano to provide the support.

In the course of the different works, we could enjoy her amazing control in the long, sustained notes of the Vivaldi middle section, and her equally mesmerizing moves in the Paganini, and her overall mastery of the demands of the repertoire.

The chorus then stood to give a rousing arrangement of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” accented by the orchestra’s snare drums and trumpets, with the moving closing lines, “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,” a poignant reminder of our present international crisis, which some would call World War III.

The program as a whole was crafted to reach a broader audience than just the usual classical subscribers. The artful combination of the familiar and the new, the historic and the patriotic, set the right tone for an evening dedicated to our national values, and our determined support for American heroes—and victims—everywhere.

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