Live Review: WV Symphony Presents “Regally Romantic”

The West Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s symphonic series continued this past Saturday with a “Regally Romantic” show featuring guest pianist Jon Nakamatsu. The concert was held in The Clay Center’s Maier Foundation Performance Hall.

Maestro Grant Cooper led his orchestra through performances of Franz von Suppé’s “Light Cavalry Overture”, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43”, and Anton Bruckner’s “Symphony No. 4 in E flat major, WAB 104 ‘Romantic.'” Van Cliburn award-winning pianist Jon Nakamatsu joined the orchestra for the Rachmaninoff work.

During the pre-performance “Prelude” discussion, Cooper and Nakamatsu discussed the effect modern pianos have on the sound of classical works written on earlier models of the piano. They also mentioned how a pianist’s choice to play in a way that more accurately reflects the mechanical origins of a piece (as opposed to using the full power of the modern instrument) can influence whether they win awards. Other topics of discussion were how physical environment and climate alter a piano’s sound and the challenge of memorizing classical works.

Austrian singer-composer Franz von Suppé’s “Leichte Kavallerie (Light Cavalry)” is a three-act operetta (light opera, kind of like musical theatre) that was first performed in Vienna in 1866. The operetta is a political satire that centers on a certain Earl’s preferential treatment of his dancing mistress, whose ballet company the people mockingly call “The Light Cavalry”. The Overture is one of Suppé’s most famous pieces and has been used in everything from Beetlejuice to cartoons like Animaniacs and Tiny Toon Adventures.

The WV Symphony’s rendition of “The Light Cavalry Overture” was especially exciting, full of bombast and drama. The entire orchestra was spectacular, but the horn and violin sections were particularly magnificent. The structure of the piece made it as interesting to watch as it was to listen. It was the best WV Symphony performance I’ve been to in the past 25 years.

The inclusion of twentieth century Russian composer-pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43” was the main reason I wanted to attend and review this performance. I first heard a clip of it in the classic film Somewhere in Time and it was love at first listen.

Rachmaninoff was a friend and pupil of Tchaikovsky who suffered from depression and what was at times crippling self-doubt. His “Rhapsody” is a set of twenty-four variations on the last of Niccolò Paganini’s Caprices for solo violin, but Rachmaninoff’s work was written for solo piano and symphonic orchestra.

The piece begins with a fuller orchestral sound before gradually melting into that serenely beautifully and emotive piano melody (Variation No. 18) that I first heard in Somewhere In Time. The latter portion of the piece bursts into a faster tempo and the tension builds with its momentum.

Pianist Jon Nakamatsu played brilliantly, effortless maneuvering between moments that called for his piano to be the attention-grabbing focus of the piece and those which required a feather light touch to blend in with the rest of the orchestra. The audience was so impressed that they responded with a lengthy standing ovation, encouraging an encore.

I’ve only recently become a fan of nineteenth century Austrian composer Anton Bruckner. Bruckner’s love of music was sparked by a church organ when he was a young altar boy. He was a great fan of Wagner and, like Mahler, was unappreciated during his lifetime. In the late 1860s, Bruckner’s frenzied composing led to a mental breakdown and an obsession with counting (numeromania) that landed him in a sanatorium. Mental illness seems to have been a common part of classical composer biographies.

Bruckner’s “Symphony No. 4: “The Romantic” was written in 1874 and revised extensively in the years that followed – his compulsive habit of revising his work multiple times and the reworkings done by others after his death resulted in controversy over the authenticity of modern arrangements of his works (a.k.a. “The Bruckner Problem“).

In letters to his contemporaries, Bruckner revealed that his fourth symphony begins with a horn announcing a new day and then follows a hunting party through the woods. It depicts an almost reverent appreciation of nature rather than human romance. That initial horn blast and the gentle, horn-accented ascent of the first movement are my personal favorite parts of the symphony.

Cooper talked a bit about Bruckner during that initial “Prelude” discussion. I agree totally with his statement that Bruckner’s music is “gorgeous” and “sonorous,” but also understand his warning that the length and composition of Bruckner’s fourth symphony requires the patience and attention you would give to a wise but elderly grandparent.

I think the first movement is exhilarating and beautiful in a spacious, cinematic way – the theme initially presented by that morning horn is intricately woven throughout the movement. But even though I seem to be more of a fan of Bruckner’s music than most of the audience, it did get a little difficult to keep up my enthusiasm for the duration of the hour-long symphony. Still, the orchestra did a superb job of it and I enjoyed the night immensely.

Cameras and recording devices were prohibited, so I have no audio or photographs from this performance to share. But I did find a legal mp3 and video elsewhere…

US Marine Band – Light Cavalry Overture (mp3) *
Sergei Rachmaninoff – Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (YouTube Video)

*mp3 hosted by US Marine Band & link was provided by Wikipedia

I encourage everyone to check out a classical performance in your local area, even if you don’t normally enjoy listening to classical music. Seeing a symphonic orchestra perform live can be an inspiring experience if you have an open mind.

WV Symphony Official Site

Suppé CDs @ Amazon

Bruckner CDs @ Amazon

Rachmaninoff CDs @ Amazon

WV Symphony Orchestra: La Boheme

The West Virginia Symphony Orchestra performed The Rome H. & Bessie Walker Opera Theater production of La bohème at The Clay Center for the Arts & Sciences in Charleston, WV on May 16th, and I had the privilege of attending.

I consider myself a fan of opera music, but I had never been to an actual opera before. So I was initially disappointed to learn this would only be a semi-staged production. In the program for the event, conductor Grant Cooper courteously explained the reason behind the limited production – namely the financial strain a full opera would have imposed on the symphony during this economic downturn.

Fortunately, the lack of costuming and set design did not detract from the power of the opera at all. Rather, the absence of visual distractions seemed to emphasis the beauty of the music and the power of the singers’ voices. And the WV Symphony’s impeccable instrumentation provided the perfect accompaniment for the singers without taking away from the action on stage.

I tried to familiarize myself with the history of Giacomo Puccini’s four-act opera in preparation for the performance. The libretto of La bohème is partially based on the novel Scènes de la vie de bohème by Henri Murger, but Puccini apparently changed much of the plot for his opera. Though the title, setting, and entire basis for the opera were French, the opera itself is sung in Italian.

La bohème tells the story of a group of poor artists living in 19th century Paris, and centers on the relationship between poet Rodolfo and seamstress Mimì. Their turbulent love is only part of the story, as it is revealed that Mimì has tuberculosis. Those of younger generations are probably most familiar with the characters and plot of La bohème as the basis for the musical (and subsequent movie) Rent.

La bohème‘s Mimì is of course Rent‘s Mimì, and poet Rodolfo corresponds with musician Roger. The painter Marcello in La bohème was split into the two characters of Mark and Joanne (who is also partially based on La bohème‘s state councilor Alcindoro) in Rent. La bohème‘s seductive singer Musetta is Rent‘s Maureen, musician Schaunard became Angel, philosopher Colline is Tom Collins, and landlord Benoît is Benny. Even the songs of Rent were born from scenes in La bohème – such as the candlelit meeting of Mimì and Rodolfo that obviously inspired “Light My Candle”.

I include these parallels between Rent and La bohème in hopes of drawing younger fans to the opera. It seems most people I know turn up their nose at the mere mention of “opera”, because they think it’s boring or they believe it’s beyond their comprehension. I must admit that learning the similarities between Rent and La bohème provided cliff notes for me, which enabled me to easily follow along with the opera even though I don’t speak Italian (though the Symphony was kind enough to project English subtitles above the stage). And the Symphony’s modernization of the costumes and setting of La bohème made it seem even more like its Broadway counterpart.

Jeffrey Springer was the perfect choice for Rodolfo. His deep and robust voice reminded me of John McCormack or Placido Domingo, which are not comparisons easily found these days. Jeffrey Madison as Marcello, Steven Stull as Shaunard, and John Shuffle as Colline also gave competent performances, and all of the male singers revealed their comedic talents in the opening scene of the final act.

Charleston’s own Roger Lucas portrayed the toy vendor Parpignol, while the crowds in The Latin Quarter marketplace and Café Momus were composed of singers from the Appalachian Children’s Chorus and WV Symphony Chorus. Tim Jerome revived his role as Benoît, who he played in director Baz Luhrmann‘s production of La bohème. Jerome has also appeared in several films, including Cradle Will Rock, Everyone Says I Love You, and SpiderMan 2.

Yet it was unquestionably the female leads who owned the stage. Vicki Fingalson played a very vivid Musetta with a confident strut, glittering hot pink dress (and matching stilettos), and gravity-defying trills.

Barbara Shirvis’ magnificently understated performance as Mimi held the audience captive throughout the entire evening, particularly her aria “Mi chiamano Mimì” and her stunning duet with Springer of “O soave faciulla”. Her powerful, pristine, and utterly pitch perfect voice filled the auditorium and soared from floor to rafter without even a hint of shrillness.

Shirvis was the subject of several gushing conversations I overheard during intermission. And she immersed herself so deeply into her character that I heard several sniffles in the audience during Mimi’s final scene. I was shocked to read in the program that this was her debut performance as Mimi, because she seemed as comfortable in the character’s skin as if she’d been inhabiting her for years.

As for the venue…The Clay Center‘s 1,883 seat Maier Foundation Performance Hall may be small compared to other auditoriums in the city, but the vertical design is perfect for an opera. Because the structure of the auditorium puts height ahead of width, every seat has a good view of the stage and the acoustics are superb.

Cameras and recording devices were prohibited during the actual performance, but I took pictures of the empty auditorium during the orchestra’s rehearsal before the program. And I found the following public domain (a.k.a. free and legal) recording of Puccini himself singing “Che gelida manina” from La boheme at Archive.org:

Giacomo Puccini – Che gelida manina (mp4) *

*public domain recording hosted by Archive.org