Live Review: WV Symphony Presents “New World Symphony”

West Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s “New World Symphony” concerts were held at The Clay Center’s Maier Foundation Performance Hall this past weekend and I had the pleasure of attending Friday night. The WVSO performed Antonin Dvořák’s “Symphony No. 9 in E minor (From the New World)” (a.k.a. the “New World Symphony”) and Anton Bruckner’s “Symphony No. 3 in D minor.”

During the pre-performance “Preludes” discussion, Maestro Cooper and orchestra member Tom Beal talked about the Germanic tradition of the two pieces. Cooper revealed that the WV Symphony will perform Bruckner’s eighth symphony in one year and have already started preparation for the performance.

Beal humorously compared the old rivalry between Brahms and Bruckner fans to East Coast vs. West Coast rappers, while Cooper compared Bruckner’s compositions to a “primordial mist” which allows the listener to “glimpse elements of all creation.” I had noticed in my preliminary research that Bruckner’s third symphony often receives incredibly negative criticism and Cooper addressed this, pleading with us to take Bruckner as he is – to be to “washed” and “bathed” in his music without expectations or comparisons.

Cooper then called Dvořák’s “New World Symphony” a “Top 10” classical work, commending the unity and “incredible orchestration” of the piece. He joked about and hummed the “cheesy” “boogie woogie line” from the Czechian folk-influenced portion of the symphony, but overall deemed it “justly popular” and “a fabulous piece of music” that is very fun to play.

First up was “Symphony No. 3 in D minor” by Austrian composer Anton Bruckner. A contemporary of my beloved Mahler, Bruckner’s music was influenced by Beethoven as well as his own deeply held faith that music is an extension of God’s creation. It was this spiritual belief, as well as his sensitivity to criticism, that restrained Bruckner from experimenting or expressing himself too much in his work.

His music was also heavily influenced by Wagner, particularly his third symphony. Subtitled “The Wagner Symphony,” Bruckner submitted an early version of his third symphony to Wagner for review, eventually incorporated direct quotes from Wagner’s operas into revisions of the piece, and dedicated the symphony to Wagner with the inscription “to the unreachable world-famous noble master of poetry and music.”

The first movement is full of grandiose, surging waves punctuated by sudden ebbs of silence and lovely, gentle laps of melody. The second movement begins with such an elegant lilt that Cooper almost appeared to be dancing as he gracefully conducted the orchestra. I don’t know if it was the brilliance of the WV Symphony’s performance or my heeding Cooper’s advice to just let Bruckner’s music wash over me, but I loved the hour-long, four-movement symphony.

The second half of the evening was devoted to “Symphony No. 9 in E minor (From the New World)” by Antonin Dvořák. Dvořák’s ninth is perhaps his most famous work, at least here in America. The symphony’s many inspirations included Dvořák’s experiences in New York City, the traditional Czech and Bohemian folk music he heard in a small immigrant community in Iowa, and his interest in Native American music and African American spirituals. The result is one of the more modern sounding classical works.

A trumpet blare and the fluttering of flutes heralded the beginning of the first movement before a dramatic rumble as the rest of the orchestra joined in. The exquisite second movement of the New World Symphony, which was later adapted into the song “Goin’ Home,” is a melodic thing of beauty. There was something very lyrical about the underlying melody of the entire piece, particularly the first two movements. Yet even the dramatic bombast of the third movement is tempered by that intricate melody. The third movement also features unusual chiming embellishments that almost sounded like the ring of a vintage telephone. The fourth movement was literally cinematic – I could’ve sworn it sounded like the themes from Jaws and Star Wars intertwined.

Unbeknown to me, there had been a tornado warning in Charleston during the concert. Cooper did warn the audience about a pending storm and assured us that we were in the safest place if the power went out. We couldn’t even hear the storm during the spectacular performance and the skies were clear by the time we stepped out of the Clay Center. As Cooper himself said, “The weather outside is frightful, but inside is delightful.”

Cameras and recording devices were prohibited, so I have no audio or photographs from this performance to share. But WVSO’s site had a link to this YouTube video…

You can download free, legal mp3s of the Columbia University Orchestra performing Dvořák’s New World Symphony here, and hear a discussion by Marin Alsop as well as excerpts of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performing the piece at NPR.

WV Symphony Official Site

Live Review: WV Symphony Presents “Mahler 1: Titan”

West Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s “Mahler 1: Titan” concerts were held at The Clay Center’s Maier Foundation Performance Hall this past weekend.

Italian pianist Domenico Codispoti joined Maestro Grant Cooper and his orchestra for a performance of Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor” and Mahler’s “Symphony No. 1 in D major.”

During the pre-performance “Preludes” discussion Saturday night, Maestro Cooper and guest pianist, Domenico Codispoti, discussed training for Mozart’s concerto. I appreciated Codispoti’s remark that people still “need to hear Mahler and Mozart.”

Maestro Cooper also explained the technical aspects of tailoring a piano’s tuning to the soloist, the orchestra and the work being performed. Codispoti spoke of the progressive intimacy between a pianist and his piano as well as the role a technician plays in that particular relationship.

Codispoti exited the stage when Cooper began to talk of Mahler. 2011 marks the 100th anniversary of Mahler’s death, leading to this tribute by the WV Symphony. Cooper shared portions of Mahler’s biography with the sparse “Preludes” audience, particularly the prejudice the composer faced and how he combined the earthiness of traditional Jewish music with the elegance of classic Viennese music. One fact that was new to me was what Cooper described as Mahler’s railing against “the star system” – a common practice at the time of using popular singers rather than those whose voices were best suited to the material.

Cooper’s affection and admiration for Mahler’s music mirror my own, yet heightened by his own knowledge as a conductor and composer. He expertly compared the success of a piece of music to that of any great work of art or entertainment – to be truly captivating requires both depth and character. He ended with an architectural metaphor to explain the struggle a conductor and orchestra face in interpreting a composer’s structural outline.

I wish I could have recorded Maestro Cooper’s words to share here, as they were quiet poetic as well as informative. I encourage WV Symphony attendees who have not been arriving early enough for the “Preludes” discussion to do so in the future, it is the appetizer to an evening of fine dining.

Guest pianist Domenico Codispoti joined the symphony for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466,” the first performance of the evening. Like Beethoven, Mozart really needs no introduction. The composer himself took on the role of soloist when this concerto premiered in Vienna in 1785.

Unfortunately, I am unable to comment on the WV Symphony’s performance of the piece as I was seated next to a very noisy and flailing child. Try as I might, it was impossible to concentrate on the orchestra amidst such chaos. While I appreciate any parent introducing their offspring to classical music, it was a sadly jarring distraction for everyone seated quietly around them.

I can say from my pre-concert research Mozart’s three-movement concerto begins with a dark, syncopated rhythm championed by the string section before the piano eventually joins the orchestra. The second movement has an almost song-like melody with G minor operatic embellishments. And the finale begins with what is known as a Mannheim Rocket – a rapidly ascending arpeggio that begins with the piano then spreads to the rest of the orchestra. The drama mood of the piece rises into a jubilant lightness for the conclusion.

Judging from the crowd’s standing ovation, Codispoti and the WV Symphony did not disappoint.

The second half of the evening was devoted to Austrian composer-conductor Gustav Mahler’s “Symphony No. 1 in D major: Titan.”

Thankfully, a gentleman and his wife a few rows infront of me got up to leave during the intermission and they graciously allowed us to take their seats for the Mahler performance when I explained my child-related predicament. I’m so grateful for the kindness of those strangers, as it was an astounding performance.

Mahler is one of my favorite composers (surpassed only by Chopin) and his first symphony competes with his eighth “Symphony of a Thousand” (I’d love to hear the WVSO tackle that one!) as my favorite of his works. To say I was thrilled to hear the WV Symphony perform the Titan symphony would be a massive understatement.

Like many of Mahler’s other works, the four-movement “Symphony No. 1 in D major: Titan” explores themes of nature, youth, love and death. The title “Titan” comes from Mahler’s original concept of a tone poem based on Jean Paul’s novel and the symphony includes themes from Mahler’s own “Songs of a Wayfarer.”

A contemporary of Brahms and Bruckner, Mahler’s extraordinary compositions are full of subtle intricacies as well as cinematic grandeur. More than any other composer, I think Mahler utilized, emphasized and glorified every instrument in the orchestra. His use of woodwinds and horns is always captivating, particularly in the first movement of this work as the trumpets imitate the sound of a cuckoo.

Mahler’s gradual introduction of each section of the orchestra at the opening of the first movement has the effect of a just dawning sunrise – beginning with the subtle shadows and silhouettes of the horns, then a few random rays of light from the strings before the entire horizon of the stage is filled with the warm, golden tones of the radiant symphony.

The final portions of both the first and second movements were so exhilarating bombastic, I saw several audience members visibly restrain themselves from breaking the unspoken no-applause-between-movements rule.

Maestro Cooper took a long, dramatic pause before beginning the magnificent third movement, which begins with a contrabass-led transformation of “Frère Jacques” as a hunter’s funeral march.

The movement then blossoms into what sounds like a Jewish folk song mixed with a waltz – a superb example of Mahler embracing his Jewish heritage while simultaneously paying homage to the classical composers he revered.

The third movement melts away as the fourth erupts with an unexpected, heart-pounding cymbal crash. The final movement beautifully expands on the themes of the preceding movements before its triumphant end.

The WV Symphony’s breathtaking performance revealed nuances in Mahler’s work that I hadn’t picked up from recordings before. The entire orchestra is to be commended, but I must give extra praise to the trumpeters and other horn players for really bringing Mahler’s complex arrangement to vivid life. The WV Symphony’s rendition of Mahler’s “Titan” was the most exciting, chill-producing live performance of my life.

When I compose a symphony, I compose the world.” – Gustav Mahler

Cameras and recording devices were prohibited, so I have no audio or photographs from this performance to share. But WVSO’s site had a link to this YouTube video…

WV Symphony Official Site

Live Review: WV Symphony Presents “Song of the Earth”

West Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s “Song of the Earth” concerts were held at The Clay Center’s Maier Foundation Performance Hall this past weekend.

Mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby and tenor John MacMaster joined Maestro Grant Cooper and his orchestra for a performance of Gustav Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth).”

Austrian composer-conductor Gustav Mahler is my third favorite composer (just after Chopin and Beethoven), so I was very excited to hear the WV Symphony tackle another of his substantial works. A contemporary of Brahms and Bruckner, Mahler was as famous for his arrogance as he was for his brilliance. His compositions possess a complexity and grandeur to rival Wagner.

“Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth)” was composed for two vocal soloists and an orchestra. The sixty-five minute, six-movement symphony is comprised of six independent songs. Mahler’s work contains several Chinese motifs, with lyrics both inspired by and culled directly from Hans Bethge’s German translation of ancient Chinese poetry.

During the pre-performance “Preludes” discussion with orchestra member Tom Beal, Maestro Cooper encouraged the audience to reflect on what meaning this ancient Chinese poetry – first translated into German and then expounded upon for Mahler’s composition – holds for the 21st century.

An obvious Mahler enthusiast, Cooper called the discovery of Mahler’s music a life-changing event for himself. He shared his passion for this particular piece, his knowledge of the composer’s life and his pleasure at the resurgence in popularity Mahler’s music has enjoyed in recent decades after having been banned by the Nazi regime.

According to Maestro Cooper, Mahler called “Das Lied von der Erde” his most personal work and the poetic scenes of the original Chinese text are clearly painted by Mahler through his music. Cooper also extolled the virtues and multi-layered nature of opera (though “Das Lied von der Erde” is technically a symphony), particularly how the orchestra can reveal a singer’s true thoughts and emotions when they are singing something entirely different.

Rather than opening with another work as usual, Maestro Cooper and his orchestra instead spent the first hour of the performance dissecting Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde.” While I understood Cooper’s desire to educate the audience in hopes of enhancing their listening experience and greatly appreciated his insights, I felt the musical “spoilers” performed by the symphony during the lecture diminished the power of the work when they finally performed it in its entirety. I think it would have been more effective to have incorporated that segment into the “Preludes” discussion or scheduled it for the second half of the evening. That small complaint aside, however, the actual performance of “Das Lied von der Erde” was lovely.

The first movement, “Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde (The Drinking Song of Earth’s Misery),” masks a lament of human mortality beneath the ignorant bliss of inebriation.

The earth will stand firm for ages – and forever bloom in sping. But you, Mankind, how long will you live then?

The second movement, “Der Einsame im Herbst (The lonely one in Autumn),” is a softer, gentler dirge. The slow death of nature’s beauty as winter approaches mimics the weariness and loneliness of age.

The autumn in my heart has lasted too long

The third movement, “Von der Jugend (Of Youth),” seems to yearn for the careless mirth of youth, but is really a metaphor for the trivial phases of life that can never be recovered.

Friends, beautifully dressed, are drinking and chatting

The fourth movement, “Von der Schönheit (Of Beauty),” sings of the fleeting passions and beauty of youth. Cooper pointed out that Mahler altered the description of the horses in this verse to refer to the trampling effects of life.

The agitation of her heart leaps after him, lamenting

The fifth movement, “Der Trunkene im Frühling (The drunken man in Spring),” contrasts the self-absorption of a drunkard with the renewal of Spring.

What does Spring mean to me? The chance to be drunk!

The finale, “Der Abschied (The Farewell),” is a wistful rumination on life’s passing into death as the day passes into night.

Quiet is my heart, even while waiting for its final hour!

What I enjoy most about the piece is the juxtaposition of voice and instrumentation in Mahler’s arrangement. Rather than focusing heavily on vocals – which can be a composition’s downfall in the wrong hands (or voice) – the singers must compete here with the dynamic energy of the orchestra.

Tenor John MacMaster was especially capable of such a contest. His powerful voice initially engaged in a lilting dance with the orchestra before exploding into the musical equivalent of two thunder clouds colliding.

Mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby was also quite good, though she at times lacked the projection necessary to truly dazzle. Granted, it would be difficult for any singer to surpass Audrey Babcock’s performance of Mahler with the WV Symphony in 2009.

Throughout the performance, the WV Symphony played as beautifully as always. The orchestra skillfully and gorgeously portrayed the subtle, emotive nuances of Mahler’s arrangement – from blithe frivolity and radiant jubilance to simmering melancholy and delicate resignation.

Cameras and recording devices were prohibited, so I have no audio or photographs from this performance to share.

WV Symphony Official Site

Local Event: WV Symphony Presents “Song of the Earth”

Local fans of classical music should check out one of The West Virginia Symphony’s “Song of the Earth” concerts this Friday or Saturday at The Clay Center in Charleston, WV. The concerts begin at 8 p.m. with “Preludes” introductions by Maestro Grant Cooper at 7:00 p.m.

Mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby and tenor John MacMaster will accompany the symphony for a performance of Gustav Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth).”

Tickets for the show may be purchased at The Clay Center’s box office or via their website.

My review of the concert will be posted early next week.

Live Review: WV Symphony Presents “Valentina Returns”

West Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s “Valentina Returns” concerts were held at The Clay Center’s Maier Foundation Performance Hall this past weekend with the titular guest pianist Valentina Lisitsa. Valentina accompanied Maestro Grant Cooper and his magnificent orchestra through performances of Sergei Prokofiev’s “Concerto for Piano No. 3 in C Major, Op. 26” and Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68 (Pastorale).”

This season marks Maestro Cooper’s tenth year as Artistic Director and Conductor of the WV Symphony, and Ukrainian pianist Valentina Lisitsa was the guest soloist at his first performance with the orchestra a decade ago. During the pre-performance “Preludes” discussion with Maestro Cooper Saturday night, Valentina revealed she has accumulated fifty concerti in her repertoire since then.

Born in Kiev and currently residing in rural North Carolina, the glamorous Valentina jokingly refers to herself as a “redneck pianist.” She began playing piano when she was just three years old and had her first solo recital at the age of four.

She lists Beethoven and Rachmaninoff among her favorite composers, but said she only became a fan of Rachmaninoff – whom she previously considered “too sentimentally Russian” – after her move to the U.S. Then, she said, “it was love for me.”

After likening the daunting transition from piano competitions to symphonic concerts to a competitive iceskater joining a professional ballet troupe for a performance of Swan Lake, Valentina said: “You play music and try to make people cry a little bit.”

Between “Preludes” and the main performance, members of the WV Symphony’s horn section entertained guests milling about in The Clay Center’s lobby.

I was most excited to hear the symphony perform Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 6,” since Beethoven is my second favorite composer after Frédéric Chopin. Also known as “The Pastorale Symphony,” Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 6” was written to represent his love of nature.

Beethoven is famously quoted as calling the work “more an expression of feeling than painting.” He also said of the symphony: “Anyone who has an idea of country life can make out for himself the intentions of the composer without many titles” and “Surely woods, trees, and rocks produce the echo that man desires to hear.” Such sentiments made this scenic piece of music perfectly suited to our Appalachian state.

“Symphony No. 6” is one of the few works that Beethoven named and its full title was “Pastoral Symphony, or Recollections of Country Life.” I do wish more classical works had such short, memorable names, as I can never remember all those numeric titles!

Each of the five moments evokes emotional responses experienced during a walk in the countryside, beginning with the initial “Awakening of cheerful feelings on arriving in the country” movement. Each jaunty step of the journey was propelled by the orchestra’s spirited string section as led by Concertmaster and first violinist, Amelia Chan.

The pretty and pristine second movement, titled “Scene at the Brook,” found the strings imitating the sounds of flowing water and culminated with a bird-like flutter of flute.

The more buoyant third movement picked up the tempo to mimic a “Happy Gathering of Country Folk.” Its gentle merriment ended abruptly with the first drops of rain.

The sound of falling rain ushered in the tempestuous fourth movement, “Thunderstorm,” which eventually tremored with violent thunder and lightning. The storm dissipated slightly, but lingered as a subtle introduction to the fifth movement. The finale was a joyous “Shepherd’s Song” of thanksgiving at the passing of the storm.

Beethoven may not have viewed this composition as a painting, but each note he penned perfectly conjured up the panoramic images he wished to convey with the piece and the WV Symphony gorgeously brought it to life. As I heard someone exclaim during intermission, they “sure play a mean thunderstorm!”

Valentina and her piano then joined the Symphony on stage for Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev’s “Piano Concerto No. 3.” I must admit I’m not as well versed in Sergei Prokofiev’s repertoire as I am with Beethoven’s, but he is considered to be one of the greatest composers of the last century. And his work – including portions of “Piano Concerto No. 3” – has often been compared to Sergei Rachmaninoff, who is also one of my favorite composers.

Prokofiev’ first began work on the three-movement concerto in 1913, but didn’t complete it until 1921. According to the Symphony program, Prokofiev gleaned portions of the work from an abandoned string quartet he’d been writing using only the “white notes” of the piano. Despite a lackluster reception when it debuted, the concerto has since become one of Prokofiev’s most popular and critically-acclaimed works.

Like many of the greats, Prokofiev was a child protege who mastered the piano by the age of five and composed his first opera by the age of nine. He was also known for his ego as an adult, though this arrogance seems to have been limited to his compositions. I’ve read several quotes indicating he was very self-conscious about his own playing abilities, particularly when attempting his more difficult works.

His innovative compositions were sometimes controversial with the general public, but the critics hailed him as brilliant. He counted among his more famous fans composers Igor Stravinsky and Maurice Ravel.

What I personally enjoyed most about the Prokofiev piece was how beautifully the arrangement balanced the piano with the rest of the orchestra. Symphonic solos are tricky things, often resulting in one instrument either overshadowing or weakening the entire orchestra. But Prokofiev’s concerto allowed for a lovely and lively, almost acrobatic interplay between Valentina and the other musicians.

A clarinet opened and led the first movement as the orchestra joined in to expand the melody. Valentina’s piano came alive in a sudden burst of exhilarating, crashing rhythm. The entire movement was full of dramatic, intricate nuances, including an almost militant march toward the end. The audience was so astounded by Valentina’s playing that they broke the unspoken ban on applause between movements.

The second movement initially took a step back for a slower display of the piano, but soon the orchestra was struck up again for an exciting, playful race with Valentina’s nimble fingers. This middle section of the piece genre-hopped a bit with jazzy variations on the main theme, which melted into a lovely, slightly eerie calm before exploding again. This flare of full-bodied sound ebbed and flowed, then disappeared into the original theme.

The third movement broke the harmony that preceded it, and Prokofiev apparently deemed the finale an “argument” between the piano soloist and the rest of orchestra. It did seem like Valentina’s frenzied piano was bickering with the horns and strings, as they kept interrupting and contradicting each other. That push and pull churned the orchestra and the tempo of the piece up, building anticipation for a grand crescendo. But the concerto continued to be full of surprising twists and turns. The noise took a sudden drop as the woodwinds danced with Valentina’s keys through a slow, gorgeously quiet theme. Then the argument resumed and finally came that climatic surge and resolution.

A standing ovation prompted two encores by Valentina, who allowed the audience to choose between Chopin, Liszt, and Beethoven. I was overjoyed that those of us who shouted “Chopin!” won out. She gave a splendid tribute to my favorite composer. As the lights came on, a man behind me remarked, “quite of a pair of hands…gorgeous.” I wholeheartedly agree.

Cameras and recording devices were prohibited, so I have no audio or photographs from this performance to share.

WV Symphony Official Site