Alexandria's Ulysses S. James, musical director of the Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic, lifted the baton for the orchestra's final concert of the season Sunday evening at Bishop Ireton's Whaley Auditorium, and the 50 some-odd players launched into a program that filled the hall with sounds of composers from Denmark, Norway and Finland.
They played with a verve that felt like a collective regret — that this was to be the last performance of the season, and there was a united desire to make the best of it.
James opened the concert with Carl Nielsen's "Helios Overture." Denmark's Nielsen may be from the northern edge of Europe, but he composed this overture while vacationing in Greece. It is a short, 10-minute work and is the most programmatic of the three pieces the orchestra tackled this weekend. It is named for the Greek god of the sun and portrays, in musical terms, the progress of that god's transit of the sky in a single day. Just as with the sun itself, the most dramatic moments do come at the beginning with a glorious dawn and ending with a colorful sunset. The burst of light at dawn was nicely captured in the firm clear horns just before the blast of brass.
JAMES THEN LED the orchestra from program music to folk-song themed dances with a collection of Edvard Grieg's Norwegian Dances, each of which is based on an actual Norwegian folk song but which features Grieg's own additional middle sections to create not only lengthier but also more musically sophisticated pieces. All are in allegro tempos, meaning that the challenge of the conductor is to keep all the forces together — James succeeded.
The big number of the evening was Sibelius' "Symphony Number Two," an expansive piece that seems to ebb and flow with the swells of a wintry Baltic Sea off the composer's native Finland. While many symphonies sound somewhat like they were composed for some individual instrument and then arranged for full orchestra, Sibelius' second is pure orchestral music. No one instrument, not even a piano or an organ or a chorus of human voices, could create the sweep of sound with such intricate interrelationships between many parts called for in this forty minute, four movement piece.
The orchestra seemed to falter a bit with a brief loss of focus early in the first movement, but then a segment for the unaccompanied violins gave the entire orchestra a chance to regroup and the violin's glorious sound, led by concertmaster Irina Garkavi, seemed to inspire a renewed sense of collaboration.
The symphony has many patterns that aren't exceptionally intricate in and of themselves, but which must mesh with figures being played by other sections at the same time. This give and take of rhythmic figures is what gives the piece its fluid sound so reminiscent of an ocean surface, and the orchestra met that challenge. When they hit full stride in the finale, it was a thrilling conclusion to a fine concert and an intriguing season.
Brad Hathaway reviews theater and music in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway. He writes the program notes for the Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic and is the editor/reviewer for Potomac Stages, a Web site covering theater in the region (www.PotomacStages.com). He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.