RSO season ends with stars and sparkles

RSO season ends with stars and sparkles

By Georgia Pampel, Music Critic

Saturday, May 10, at the Coronado Theatre, Steven Larsen led the Rockford Symphony Orchestra in its final classic concert of the season. I’m tempted to say “an enlarged” Symphony Orchestra, for the sounds were simply overwhelming. The program opened with the bouncing rhythms of Smetana’s Bartered Bride excerpts, Three Dances, with which Smetana defied the critic who had smugly claimed that there was no such thing as Czech music!

Energized by that opening, we were still knocked flat by the energy that came next, when Pianist Lori Sims came out on stage (her third appearance with the RSO) to put forth a work by a 21-year-old Richard Strauss, his Burleske for Piano and Orchestra. Strauss had already been proven a gifted composer, but piano was never his forte. With the first version of this work, he had trouble getting it performed because pianists declared it unplayable. He reworked it to bring it back within human range, and it soon became very popular among those daring enough to tackle its demands.

Lori Sims, who hadn’t been familiar with this earlier, but added it to her repertoire at the request of Steve Larsen, declared that she loves it now, and well she might, for how wonderfully it displays her piano virtuosity, physical power, and still the control with which she can bring it all down to a whisper at a moment’s notice, a fascinating work, in which the piano is the star without resorting to the simpler spells found in sentimental melodies. Instead, Strauss gives the piano and the pianist a workout, demanding both power and musical intelligence, and then ends with a whispered dialogue between the subdued keyboard and the timpani that had opened the work.

Some of the concert-goers sitting around me were just as fascinated by the question of how she kept her dress in place, as the back dipped so low, and others wondered where she got the slippers that twinkled like those sporty sneakers we see on the streets—but I’d settle for some of the secrets of her musicianship, as she wove the piano fireworks into an intrinsic part of the orchestra rather than the more conventional concerto role of solo with orchestral accompaniment.

But all of the foregoing could barely prepare us for what came after the intermission. At the time of composing this, his Fourth Symphony, Tchaikovsky was tackling many griefs and heart-wrenching dilemmas, not the least of which was facing his own homosexuality in a society in which it was punishable by death. He even tried marriage—an immediate disaster, so it is not surprising that this Symphony is full of moans and sighs. It opens with a strident warning from the brass, plunging into harmonic shifts that carry their own expressions of despair. Recognizing that there must be some even momentary relief, Tchaikovsky then offers us a sprightly third movement, in which the strings are all pizzicato, alternating with passages by the woodwind choir. All this leads into the final movement, where we again hear the lavish string sounds we associate with this composer, but know that he will never find his own happiness, while leaving so much richness to his audiences for ages to come.

The Rockford audience responded at the end with cheers and whistles as they rose for the “Standing O”, looking forward to a great season promised for next year, with Pianist André Watts and Ceillist YoYo Ma, to drop only a couple of names!

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