RSO gives audience the grand tour
By Georgia Pampel, Music Critic
On March 15, the Rockford Symphony Orchestra (RSO) once again showed what a rich variety lies within the concert repertoire. They bewitched the audience with a program that explored the many ways composers have dodged the conventional sonorities, using the strings in ways that made them a backdrop for the winds and brass that took over the melodies and musical direction, again and again.
Conductor Steven Larsen presents themes for his programs, giving them evocative titles that interpret his choices, and this evening was titled Musical Postcards, referring to the orchestral experiments that carried us to Finland, Hungary, Rome, and finally Hawaii.
The program opened with En Saga by Finnish Composer Jean Sibelius, who used the strings to portray the Northern mists while the musical themes came from the low wind instruments.
Then came Zoltan Kodalys Hary Janos Suite, which called for a Hungarian cimbalom, an instrument related to the zither, and played by hammering the strings.
To play the cimbalom, which is rarely featured in this country, Larsen found Alex Udvary, an expert from Cleveland, whose talents were somewhat overpowered by the large orchestra, but roused a sure sense of the exotic when the sounds did surface.
In this suite, which Kodaly drew from his comic opera, the orchestra opens with a grandiose musical sneeze to introduce the boastful hero; Hungarian tradition assures us that such a sneeze guarantees all the tales will be true, however much they may challenge our good faith. The peasant hero describes an amazing mechanical clock in Vienna, recalls serenading his beloved, triumphantly claims to have defeated Napoleon in battle. He finally imagines his glorious reception in the Imperial Court as only the simple peasant could dream of it.
After the intermission, the audience was transported to view the Fountains of Rome, as Ottorino Respighi applied his skills to show the watery reflections of the Roman sunlight at four times of daydawn, morning, noon, and evening.
The final work, titled Haleakala: How Maui Snared the Sun, by American Dan Welcher, was introduced by a cry from a conch shell, and its story, drawn from Polynesian tradition, was narrated very effectively by Richard Meeks, who has developed his craft of story-telling (an art in itself) for more than 15 years. For his day job, he teaches in the Rockford public schools, and if he holds the students the way he held the audience, with his rich voice and fine sense of timing and suspense, the students are fortunate indeed. The story held our attention just as a soloist in a concerto might do, while the orchestra portrayed Mauis mothers plaintive cries, the sun gods resistance, and the search of the ocean floor to retrieve the materials necessary to trap the sun, which finally yields to an ordered yearly pattern of seasonal change, so that plants could ripen for mans use.
A greatly expanded percussion section stretched across the length of the Coronados stage, enhancing the exotic sense of the tales origins, and leaving this listener curious to hear more.
Mark your calendars for April 12, when the RSO will devote its Pops program to the music of Bachs 21st offspring, P.D.Q. Bach, featuring The Seasonings and the Hindenburg Concerto, among other treasures. This program, which will include the Mendelssohn Chorale, will be repeated in Freeport Sunday, April 13. The Orchestras final classics concert of the season will be May 10, returning to the more familiar sounds of Smetana, Richard Strauss, and Tchaikovsky.