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 “Classical Majesty”

West Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s “Classical Majesty” concert was held at The Clay Center’s Maier Foundation Performance Hall this past weekend and featured guest violinist Corey Cerovsek.

Maestro Grant Cooper led his orchestra through performances of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis,” Mozart’s “Violin Concerto No. 5, K. 219,” and Antonín Dvořák’s “Symphony No. 8 in G, Op. 88.”

The “Classical Majesty” theme centered on musical architecture, focusing on pieces structured around classical principles. Each of the compositions also had some kind of connection to the past, whether it be the influence of a particular composer or a certain style.

I was disappointed that the pre-performance “Preludes” discussion by Conductor Grant Cooper didn’t include its usual insights into the composers and compositions. Instead, it consisted entirely of a mostly biographical interview with guest violinist Corey Cerovsek. The conversation regarding Cerovsek’s background was a little dry for my taste, but I did enjoy the demonstration of his vintage Stradivarius.

“Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis” (a.k.a. “The Tallis Fantasia”) by British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams was written in 1910 and revised in 1919. The piece has been featured in several movies, including Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, and inspired the score to Field of Dreams.

The Tallis Fantasia is a variation on a melody originally written by sixteenth century English composer Thomas Tallis. I realize the majority of my readers are not well-versed in classical music, so a modern comparison to this would be when a pop or rap star samples a classic tune – not a true cover, but an incorporation of an older song into a new, original work.

Vaughn Williams was first drawn to Tallis’ theme while researching liturgical material – Thomas Tallis was one of the earliest composers to write for the non-Roman Anglican liturgical service. Tallis also enjoyed a long association with the English royal family during the reign of Elizabeth I.

The work was composed for a double string orchestra, so the WV Symphony was reduced to just the string players for the duration of the piece. After a brief introduction by long-time trumpet player David Porter, Maestro Cooper dedicated the evening’s performance to recently departed symphony supporter Mary Price and gave a moment of silence in her honor.

The piece’s focus on strings – as well as its Elizabethan influence – creates a serene, almost hymnal quality. The Fantasia ebbs and flows with sweeping cinematic flourishes that gracefully pull back into quieter moments of beauty.

I had never heard of Mary Price until last night, but I can think of no better tribute to anyone than the flawless performance the WV Symphony gave of Vaughn Williams’ gorgeous work.

Violin soloist Corey Cerovsek joined the orchestra for the performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Violin Concerto No. 5, K. 219.” The orchestra remained reduced to the string section, with the addition of two oboe players and two horn players.

The concerto begins with the entire ensemble playing the main theme before the solo violinist takes the lead. The final movement includes references to Turkish music, alluding to the failed 1683 Turkish assault on Vienna.

I’ll skip the biographical comments on the composer this time since most people are familiar with Mozart whether they like classical music or not. I’ve personally never understood why Mozart is so widely considered to be the equal, or in some cases the superior, of Beethoven. I guess it’s like what they say about people either being fans of The Beatles or Elvis – I like The Beatles and Mozart, but I love Elvis and Beethoven. At any rate, the work itself is not one of my favorites, but I would enjoy hearing the WVSO perform just about anything.

And it must be said that guest violinist Corey Cerovsek did a splendid job of staying in harmony with the rest of the orchestra while still standing out enough to make the piece interesting. As much as I love Joshua Bell, I think his recording of the same concerto falls flat because his violin blends in too much with the other musicians.

Cerovsek’s performance earned him a standing ovation, which prompted an encore, which prompted another standing ovation, which prompted another encore, which prompted another standing ovation. I’m not kidding. The elderly members of the audience looked exhausted by the time he finally left the stage.

The orchestra returned to its full size for Dvorak’s “Symphony No. 8 in G, Op. 88.” The four-movement Symphony was one of the more exhilarating pieces I’ve heard the symphony play, with its heady mix of bouncing jubilance (particularly the cheery “bird call” theme in the first movement) and bombastic bursts of drama in the finale. The performance was beautiful, uplifting, and absolutely sublime.

I was six years old when I first attended the symphony in the mid-1980s. I remember having an intense feeling of wonder and awe at what seemed to be such an immense, powerful force…the same thing I felt when I visited the ocean for the first time the year before. Two decades later, I still feel the same way.

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

Ralph Vaughan Williams – The Tallis Fantasia (YouTube video)
Mozart – Violin Concerto No. 5 (YouTube video)
Antonín Dvořák – Symphony No. 8 (YouTube video)

Buy Vaughan Williams @ Amazon
Buy Mozart @ Amazon
Buy Dvořák @ Amazon

WV Symphony Official Site

Live Review: WV Symphony Presents “The Wonder Of Love”

West Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s “The Wonder of Love” concert was held at The Clay Center’s Maier Foundation Performance Hall this weekend and featured guest mezzo-soprano Audrey Babcock.

Maestro Grant Cooper led his orchestra through performances of Richard Wagner’s “Prelude to Tristan und Isolde,” Gustav Mahler’s “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen,” and Hector Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique.”

The Pittsburgh Symphony kindly granted the use of The Verdin church bells for the latter, and the nearly 600-pound cast iron bells were hidden off-stage as Berlioz originally instructed when he composed the piece.

During the pre-performance “Preludes” discussion, Grant Cooper shared some of the very specific instructions Berlioz wrote for his “Symphonie Fantastique.” These included the particular kind of stick to be used for striking the drums and the infamous hidden bells.

Cooper also gave a preview demonstration of the range in sound of the bells – from a soft, muffled illusion of distance to the thunderous peals of a looming cathedral bell tower.

The Symphony began with the “Prelude” to German composer Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” a three-act opera depicting the legendary medieval romance between a Cornish knight and an Irish princess (a story which also inspired the Arthurian stories).

Wagner’s composition was mostly based on Gottfried von Strassburg’s poem “Tristan,” but it was also inspired by Wagner’s affair with married author Mathilde Wesendonck as well as the theories of philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.

“Tristan und Isolde” is considered to be one of the most influential works of the nineteenth century (the 2006 James Franco film Tristan and Isolde was based on Wagner’s opera), and its tonality is often credited as turning classical music in a new direction for the early twentieth century. Wagner was influenced by Weber and Beethoven, but his own work would inspire Mahler, Bruckner, Debussy, and countless other composers.

I’ve always thought Wagner’s works were a bit overrated, but “Tristan und Isolde” is the exception. The “Prelude” possesses a sweeping, cinematic beauty and elegance, and it was handled with tender grace in the many capable hands of the West Virginia Symphony.

Award winning mezzo-soprano Audrey Babcock joined the orchestra for “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen” by Austrian composer-conductor Gustav Mahler. This was the piece I was most excited about, as I’ve recently become enamoured with Mahler’s music (particularly his eighth symphony). After Beethoven and Bach, Mahler has skyrocketed to the top of my favorite composers list.

A contemporary of Brahms and Bruckner, Mahler was known to be intelligent, sophisticated, neurotic, and egotistical. Considering the brilliance, scope, and complexity of his compositions, I don’t blame him at all for such arrogance.

The four-movement “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen” (Songs of a Wayfarer) was Mahler’s first song cycle and was apparently inspired by the end of Mahler’s love affair with soprano Johanna Richter. You can read lyrics from all four songs at Wikipedia.

Singer Audrey Babcock was incredible. A stunning and satuesque beauty, her magnificent voice was perfectly suited to “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen.” As much as I love Mahler, this particular piece is a tricky one to carry off successfully since it relies as much on the vocalist as it does the orchestra. I’ve heard recordings that fell flat because the singer’s voice lacked the power to infuse the notes with the great emotion they require. Fortunately, Babcock’s voice was as emotive and lovely during the verses that utilized her lower register as it was in the breathtaking high notes. I was shocked that the audience did not give her a standing ovation.

French composer Hector Berlioz’ “Symphony Fantastique” is said to be the greatest first symphony ever written, though it was revised repeatedly a few years after the original composition in 1830. His orchestration was groundbreaking in its time – particularly the use of multiple timpani, bells, brass, and his trick of having the string players bounce the bow’s wood on the strings.

Berlioz briefly studied medicine before enrolling at the Paris Conservatory and supporting himself as a music reviewer for a local newspaper. His music was heavily influenced by Beethoven.

“Symphony Fantastique” was born after Berlioz saw a performance of Hamlet starring Irish actress Harriet Smithson as Ophelia. It was love at first sight for the composer and he poured his emotion into the symphony in hopes of capturing the attention of the new object of his affection.

In concept, the five-movement “Symphony Fantastique” is a bit like a classical Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas in that it follows the imaginary opium-induced visions of a young, lovesick artist. These drug-fueled hallucinations end with the artist being executed for murdering his beloved.

I’ve personally always found the first two movements boring, but my disinterest in the beginning of the piece was no reflection on the Symphony’s performance. The orchestra’s playing was impeccable as always.

Everything changed for me with the beautiful third movement, in which Berlioz made splendid use of the English horn and oboe to represent a country shepard and shepardess.

The fourth movement of “Symphony Fantastique” is astoundingly dramatic, and the orchestra’s performance was so fantastic that the audience burst into spontaneous applause between movements (breaking the unspoken rule to hold applause until the end of the symphony).

Maestro Cooper responded to the outburst by turning to the audience with a mischievous grin and saying, “It gets even better.”

Truer words were never spoken. The final movement was ominous, otherworldly, and well worth the wait. And oh the bells!

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

Wagner – Prelude to Tristan und Isolde (YouTube Video)
Mahler – Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (YouTube Video)
Berlioz – Symphonie Fantastique (YouTube Video)

And there’s a nice interview with Maestro Grant Cooper by my pal Mona Seghatoleslami at WV Public Broadcasting’s blog Classically Speaking.

Wagner CDs @ Amazon

Mahler CDs @ Amazon

Berlioz CDs @ Amazon