Of all the functions for a symphony orchestra's music director - recruiting the players, conducting the performance, acting as a spokesperson and even raising the money to keep the organization going - perhaps the most important is selecting what music to play.
The final concert of the Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic's 2006-07 season is a superb example of Music Director Ulysses S. James's ability to find exciting, rarely performed music that challenges his musicians and excites his audience.
The orchestra, formerly known as the Mount Vernon Symphony, performs each of its concerts twice. The final concert of the current season was performed at the Church of the Epiphany in Washington last Sunday and will be repeated this Sunday, June 10 at 5 p.m. at Alexandria's Bishop Ireton High School. It is a great opportunity to hear works that are dramatically captivating with passages of great beauty and stirring emotion - works that you won't hear often at other concerts.
James opened with a rousing overture with deep emotional ties to our world and our region. "A Camp David Overture" (subtitled "A Prayer for Peace") is by Bruce Craig Roter, one of three contemporary American composers whose works were selected to be performed at one of this year's concerts in a unique competition. With input from the audience and members of the orchestra and its board, one of the composers will be selected to have three compositions included in next season's schedule.
"Three" seems to be the operative number here. Roter's overture, which was inspired by the Camp David accords reached by President Jimmy Carter, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat in 1979, divides into three segments. The opening builds in coherence, as well as volume and spatial width, with three semi-climaxes, and then the orchestra erupts into a powerful "debate" with different sections of the orchestra interrupting as if in an emotional argument. At one point, James ceased beating time with his baton, as multiple rhythms played out independently. He finally cued the segue to the last passage, where beauty reigned as the symbol of the hope the accords raised.
This was followed by a full-throated performance of the 1940 "Symphony #3" by African-American composer Florence Price. Fans of Dvorak's "New World Symphony" and Copland's Americana-themed ballets should check this piece out, as it works much of the same magic with themes designed to resemble folk songs, and has both the sweeping beauty and the kind of electric rhythmic energy that might bring to mind the dances of Agnes de Mille.
AFTER INTERMISSION, James took a moment to explain the reason for the next work on the program. He told of oboist Richard White, who, after he retired from the National Symphony Orchestra, played with this orchestra just for the joy of music making. White died this past December and the orchestra, in tribute, played the slow movement of Georges Bizet's "Symphony #1," which features the oboe in a beautiful, ruminative setting. The orchestra's principal oboist, Emily Bentgen, played the oboe part with palpable emotion, and the entire orchestra seemed to give just a bit more feeling to their reading of their parts: elongating their bowing a tad, holding a soft wind note a trifle or stressing the softness of the final moment with elegiac emotion.
Then the featured soloist of the evening made her entrance. Heidi Sturniolo performed the "Concerto for Harp" by Alberto Ginastera, an Argentinean composer who spent most of his working life in Switzerland but whose music is infused with the rhythms and energy of his homeland. The sharp shards of sound that open the concerto rapidly disabuse you of any idea that the harp is only a lyrical instrument capable of soft strummed arpeggios. Indeed, the entire effect of the piece is to demonstrate the breadth of musical effects
that the instrument can create.
The orchestra overwhelmed Sturniolo a few times, but each time the soloist emerged from the sea of sound with her own musical material unharmed, proving that she can handle a low rumble, a sharp melodic line or a tricky counter-rhythm with assurance. She's in full partnership with the orchestra for the first two of the three movements, never going much more than ten or fifteen seconds without playing, but also never having a solo of as much as thirty seconds. Then the final movement begins with an extended solo that
gives Sturniolo every opportunity to shine before the full orchestra joins in once again.
James's selections for this concert complemented each other and gave the players and the audience a wide range of sonic experiences. Each built on the strengths of the others so that the concert was constantly intriguing and rewarding.
Brad Hathaway reviews music and theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a Web site covering theater in the region (www.PotomacStages.com). He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.