Local composer Haskell Small’s concerto for bassoon, piano and orchestra, played in its world premiere by the Mount Vernon Orchestra last Sunday, served as the highlight of the orchestra’s season-ending concert.
That concert, in Bishop Ireton High School’s Whaley Auditorium, will be repeated on Sunday, June 8, at West Potomac High School.
Small is the composer-in-residence for the MVO, having contributed a number of works in the past. Indeed, this concerto was set aside last year so he could concentrate on an orchestral suite that received its premiere in an earlier series of concerts.
The concerto was written for, and dedicated to, bassoonist Arnold Irchai, who joined Small and the orchestra for the premiere performance. Irchai came to the United States after training in St. Petersburg and rising to the principal bassoonist’s chair of the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra.
Irchai’s playing features both a sweetness of tone and a bubbly humor, unique to the bassoon. Small’s score calls for both talents. One particular long-lined theme that opened the second movement gave Irchai a chance to charm. He took full advantage of it, and was echoed nicely by concertmaster Irina Garkavi’s violin solo.
While the piece seems pitched to the unique qualities of the bassoon, it called for distinct playing by the solo piano as well. Small, a professional pianist with both classical and jazz recordings to his credit, performed the keyboard part with precision and flare while the full orchestra provided full-voiced support for both solos.
The evening began with J.S. Bach’s “Triple” concerto for flute, violin, harpsichord and strings in A minor, featuring Christopher Franke on violin, Christy Edewaard on flute and Michelle Roy on harpsichord. Franke and Edewaard were winners of the 2002 Concerto Competition, sponsored by the Women’s Committee of the Arlington Symphony Orchestra.
Of the three, Franke stood out both in emotion and volume, while the delicate sound of Roy’s harpsichord seemed to be swallowed up by the other two soloists and the orchestra’s 11 string players. She was, however, quite impressive in moments when the others receded and her instrument became the focal point. Similarly, Edewaard was most pleasing in those solos when the flute’s silver sound is not masked.
The first half of the concert concluded with Samuel Barber’s lush setting of a fragment of a prose poem by James Agee titled “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” sung by soprano Martha Ellison and supported by the full orchestra. She was in good, clear voice giving feeling not only to the music but to the evocative words, creating a mood portrait of a time long gone.
After intermission, the orchestra performed Edward Elgar’s “Enigma Variations,” a work that sets out a theme and then presents 14 different variations, each a tiny musical sketch of the personality of one of the composer’s friends.
The titles of the variations, usually just initials, gave clues to the identity of the subjects for early-20th century audiences but now, 100 years later, the enigma surrounding the subjects has become much less important than the quality of the music itself.
The orchestra got off to weak start with the initial theme, bringing something less than the intensity the lovely line requires. The musicians gathered both power and passion, finally wrapping up with truly joyful music making, filling the hall with energetic, impassioned sounds.
While the first variation gave a hint of the quality to come, it was the clean attack on the forth, a half-minute romp, that signaled the orchestra’s excitement. The seventh variation, which could score a time-lapse film of a construction project, was filled with exhilaration, while the ninth, a four-minute pastoral idyll, was given a lushly delicate rendition.
The 10th drew a nice, if brief, solo from principal viola player Andreas Barrett and the 11th featured big, bold brass. The variation, identified as a portrait of a cellist friend, called forth some very nice playing by John Gevorkian’s cello section that seemed to spark the rest of the strings. Under the leadership of maestro Ulysses S. James, the finale was strong, clear and clean.