The concluding concert of our Pine Bluff Symphony Orchestra’s 2013-14 season was presented Sunday at the Pine Bluff Convention Center with Charles Evans Jones conducting.
Titled "National Musical Styles and Traditions," this program was a presentation of music representing the popular and growing nationalist movement of the mid-19th through the early 20th century. As readers will recall from their school days’ studies in history, what we recognize as countries today were just coming into formation during this era. For example, the Italy we recognize today did not really take shape as a country until 1861.
Through these years, in what many historians look back upon as the Romantic movement in arts and architecture, composers were writing music that they thought represented their homeland. The compositions selected for this concert are a sampling of this "nationalist" movement. Giuseppe Verdi’s (1813-1901) Overture to the opera, " La Forza del Destino" (The Force of Destiny ); Claude DeBussy’s (1862-1918) "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun"; Bedrich Smentana’s ( 1824-1884) "The Moldau" and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s (1873-1943) "Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor."
The opening brass notes of Vedi’s "Force of Destiny" seemed to call the audience’s attention to what was about to unfold on stage before us. This approximately eight-minute selection was so well-performed and presented such compact representation of the romantic composer’s language so as to take one’s breath away. There was no outstanding solo or section. The entire orchestra was magnificent.
After the opening Verdi, Debussy’s "Prelude to The Afternoon of the Faun" offered a quite respite. After all with its dreamlike opening of flute and harp followed in turn by oboe and clarinet solos accompanied by harp and sometimes the brass section. Wow! What many of us miss with our 21st-century ears is how controversial this piece was when first presented in 1894. It is often considered the first composition of the modern era. For those of us fortunate to be present Sunday afternoon we witnessed a consummate orchestra performing at its best. Kudos to all.
"The Moldau," the final piece in this first half of the program is one of my personal favorites. Being a white-water paddling enthusiast I have often been on a river as depicted in this Tone Poem. Traveling from peaceful beginnings, artfully portrayed by the two flutes in a duet by Diane McVinney and Kristin Grant . Then the stream gathers momentum and energy as it joined by other tributaries finally sounding forth in the soaring theme from the strings. Our reverie is interrupted as we pass by settlements and activities represented by the wedding dance from the winds and the huntsmen’s horns all the while the rolling motif from the strings propels us further downstream into the surging rapids awaiting us. The quickening drumbeats and clashing symbols let us know we are in the midst of turbulent waters before the strings one again allow us to dry ourselves in the sun as float toward our destination. Folks, it doesn’t get much better than this. Evans’ baton, with the help of our orchestra, led us out of town on a cold, dreary afternoon on a magical tour of sun-kissed beaches, cool deep pools and water splashing on and over the rocks. It reminds me of a life well-lived.
After a brief intermission we returned to hear the featured soloist Gerald Robbins, as he thrilled, entertained and enthralled us with Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto. From the sonorous, opening chordal statement of the piano followed by the string entrance which seemingly came from nowhere we were treated to a duet between piano and orchestra. Sometimes the orchestra accompanied the piano while at other times the piano accompanied the orchestra. Robbins’ articulation of the arpeggio sections were performed with brilliance and clarity. The passion pouring forth during the rubato/maestoso moments of transitions was overwhelming.
In the midst of the second movement, was what many of us recognized as the melody to Eric Carmen’s (formerly of the Raspberries) 1976 hit song "All By Myself." During the extended coda of this section there was, at times, so many notes emanating from the piano that I believe Robbins’ fingers would have been a blur… moving faster than the speed of light, if we were privileged to have seen them, finally culminating in the poignant melody of Carmen’s 1976 hit song soaring from the strings. ( Last popularized by Celine Dion in 1996… oh – and in the movie "Shrek" ) With the final piano notes of this 2nd movement sounding out as Robbins did not just "play" the notes but rather "placed" the notes. Just as my undergraduate piano teacher instructed me many years ago. Superb!
The third movement of this concerto was stunning. The surging winds and brass sections under the baton of Dr. Evans in partnership with the Robbins’s keyboard skills was a world-class exhibition of teamwork at its’ finest. In addition, I felt that there were eastern influenced melodic ideas presented by the winds in perhaps an homage to the eastern edges of the Russian expanse. (Remember we began discussing "Nationalist" style. ) Robbins’ piano skills were "trilling"’ (pun intended)The conclusion with full orchestra and piano filling the hall was so absolutely full of energy that it lifted the audience from their seats as the final notes reverberated.
What fun! Thank you to our Pine Bluff Symphony and I hope to see everyone next season. It’s very much like a family reunion, isn’t it?
Richard E. Campbell writes from St. Joseph’s Church where he serves as organist/choirmaster