Saturday, May 12, 2007

A British orchestral program

As the fine arts season in Tucson winds up (and as the snowbirds go back east), the Tucson Symphony Orchestra played their last regular classical concert this weekend. Guest conductor David Lockington led a program of British composers, playing three works, none of which I had ever heard before. Stepping outside the standard repertoire is a refreshing approach, which I find much more enjoyable than the often-repeated Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms.

The concert opened with a contemporary work by Philip Sawyers, a concert overture entitled The Gale of Life. Sawyers was present at the concert and gave a few opening remarks, along with a somewhat superfluous introduction by Mr. Lockington. The piece had some gorgeous moments, especially during a reflective part in the middle for strings and glockenspiel, and an exuberant finale. Although Lockington mentioned an influence from the second Viennese school, there was nothing overtly serial about the piece, or at least it wasn't as spiky as the influence suggested.

Second on the program was Ralph Vaughan Williams' Fourth Symphony in F minor. I have only a passing familiarity with Vaughan Williams, having inherited some recordings of the second, sixth and ninth symphonies, and of course the Tallis fantasy. In retrospect, this symphony seems characteristic of the 1930s when it was written, with its powerful and dark opening chords. But the end of the first movement, transitioning to the second, is slow and peaceful. The second movement is a big duet between the winds and the strings, with each section taking a turn in developing its contrapuntal themes. The flute and oboe play the main theme over pizzicato strings, followed by a similar play between the violas and violins. The scherzo brings together many of the themes that have been presented so far, and is followed immediately by the finale, where the primary motif is used for a big brass fugue, alternating with a oom-pah brass band section and sections in a strange, jerky rhythm. The fugue subject is built from the same material as the preceding sections, but in its full glory here is recogizable as the B-A-C-H melody, using Bach's name as musical material (and using the German spelling for B-flat = 'H'). This is a wonderful, big symphony, and a real treat to hear live.

The second half of the program was Edward Elgar's violin concerto, played by the TSO's concertmaster, Steven Moeckel. A beautiful, late romantic work, the concerto was played with great balance from the orchestra, and Moeckel performed the demanding solo part with great passion. The cadenza was a bit unusual in that it was accompanied by quietly strumming strings, which created an ethereal effect. All three pieces on the program were lovely and well worth hearing again. Congratulations to the Tucson Symphony for an unusual and delightful program.

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