The roar of approval from the audience on Sunday night was an indication of just how well members of the Mount Vernon Orchestra rose to the occasion.
That response from greeted the local players as they finished performing Dmitry Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, the final work in a concert at Bishop Ireton High School’s Whaley Auditorium.
Conductor Ulysses S. James had the entire orchestra stand to acknowledge the ovation, possibly because there were so many players who had notable solos during the symphony that most everyone would have been on their feet by the end of the process anyway.
Another indication of the orchestra’s success was the pleased and relieved expressions on the faces of some of the players, who had seemed a bit anxious and uptight during the intermission as they mingled with audience members over cookies and punch.
BEFORE INTERMISSION the concert had provided individual performances from two soloists who won the opportunity to perform in recent competitions.
Jenny Lee, a pianist, won the 2002 Mount Vernon Orchestra Music Camp concerto competition.
As a result, Saturday night found her onstage, performing the first movement of Grieg’s marvelously melodic piano concerto in A minor with strength and precision. Her performance whets the appetite for the day when she can be featured in a performance of an entire concerto.
Diana Vera, a soprano, came to the Whaley Auditorium stage after winning the 2002 Northern Virginia Music Teachers Association vocal competition. She was backed by the orchestra for three songs from operas by three very different composers.
She sang “Oh Lovely Moon,” the water nymph aria from Antonin Dvorak’s little-known 1900 opera “Rusalka,” with strong, clean tones. Then she handled “Vissi d’arte” from Giacomo Puccini’s well known “Tosca,” and finally, she loosed her soaring tones for “Summertime” from George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.”
The orchestra played well in support of both soloists. However, Lee may have been distracted early in her performance by some unseemly laughing, visible in the string sections.
AS INTERMISSION ENDED and the players returned to the stage, it was apparent that their attention was concentrated on the task ahead. Most of them warmed up with snippets from the symphony to come - players taking one last chance to practice a trill or a run or a theme that they wanted to play just right.
Shostakovich was 31 and out of favor with Stalin when he restored his standing in Soviet society with the astonishingly challenging and emotionally engaging Fifth Symphony.
The four movements take nearly an hour to perform and during that time almost every emotional chord is struck, every section of the orchestra is put through its paces and the lead chair in every section is called upon to execute a difficult solo, duet or trio.
For all its technical challenge, the appeal to the audience is the clarity of its emotional content. It captures not only the audience’s attention but also their hearts, as it romps between bombast and exquisite hushed moments.
With a piece this challenging, it is not surprising that there was an occasional rough entry or apparent struggle with pitch. But these were not enough to break the spell cast not only by the full ensemble but by extraordinary solos.
Lynn Ann Zimmerman-Bell’s flute work was consistently clean and clear. Her duet in the third movement with Gail Shanta’s harp was exquisite. Mary McClain Georgevich’s oboe and Richard Rubock’s clarinet were nearly as good, and concertmaster Irina Garkavi contributed her usual soaring sound at just the right moments. Jacob Wolfe Kidder’s assured piano work was a nice contrast to his gentle celeste where he put just the right touch of delay on his last note for the first movement.
Conductor James kept his forces united, occasionally at the cost of avoiding the most difficult effects. The opening of the first movement lacked the shock value of the first few chords. But as the final movement began, the opening was every bit as explosive and dramatic as could be desired, coming after the soft conclusion of the slow third movement.
The final climax was also taken at a more measured pace, even at that pace the horn work was rough. The emphatic timpani work earlier had been so extraordinary that it may have set expectations a bit high.
At the peak of that movement’s second release it sounded as if timpanist Ronald Carlson was playing with release and delight. That delight seemed contagious.
Where & When
The Mount Vernon Orchestra will perform their concert featuring two young soloists and Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony at 7 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 16, at West Potomac High School, 6500 Quander Road. Tickets are $17-20. More information is available online at members.aol.com/mvorch/, or by calling 703-799-8229.