Saturday night's concert at Schlesinger Hall on the Alexandria campus of the Northern Virginia Community College featured more than just the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra playing beautiful music - as sumptuous and satisfying as their playing can be. It featured a video commissioned by the orchestra and the reading of quotations from a play to give additional depth to one of the pieces being played.
Music Director Kim Allen Kluge has tried many approaches to making the concerts of his organization more intriguing and interesting to a wider range of concertgoers. He has mounted concert versions of operas. He has taken the stage in "Phantom of the Opera" cape and mask to conduct a Halloween concert. For the current season, he has partnered with various theater companies in the area to give a theme to each concert.
The orchestra's partner this time out was the Little Theatre of Alexandria, which was represented by actor Mike Baker, Jr. As the orchestra played music composed by Aaron Copland for the movie made from Thornton Wilder's classic play "Our Town," Baker read some of the lines of the character "The Stage Manager." The music and the reading took place before a large screen onto which scenes of Alexandria life assembled by visual artist Stephanie Hafer were projected.
Together, the music, words and pictures painted a portrait not of "Grover's Corners," the fictional small town in New Hampshire where Wilder's play is set, but of our "Own Town" of Alexandria, even though Baker adopted something of a crisp New England twang and even included a couple of lines distinctly reflective of a Northern Union-oriented view of the Civil War.
The effect of Hafer's kaleidoscope of images of local life was diminished a bit by the shadows of two microphones and their wires that hung between the screen and the projector. Still, the impact of both words and pictures added a sweetness to Copland's music which was evocative of the traditional Americana tone of Wilder's play.
Plays were the inspiration for all three of the pieces the orchestra played before intermission. The concert began with the orchestra supporting full-throated soprano Lisa Archibeque in an aria from the opera André Previn composed based on Tennessee Williams' "Streetcar Named Desire." The aria, "I Want Magic," is a sweeping piece for the singer performing as Blanche Du Bois, the sadly dissolute heroine which is one of the theater's grand roles. The orchestra's lush strings and lyrical woodwind soloists supported Archibeque. Together, they created both musical and dramatic impact. The orchestra alone tackled two pieces from the opera that Robert Ward composed based on Arthur Miller's classic play, "The Crucible," which dealt with the 1692 witchcraft trials in Salem, Massachusetts. The first piece was the hymn from Act I which built to a full crescendo of sound on melody one might expect to find in a church service, while the incidental music from
Act III sounded at times like a Hollywood score for a film set in a middle American small town. Some of the loveliest sounds of the evening came from the solid section of french horns.
The major piece of the concert came after intermission when the full orchestra settled in to give a rousing performance of Czech composer Anton Dvoøák's Symphony #9 which is universally known as "From The New World." Dvoøák wrote the piece, probably his best known composition, while in New York. It is filled with material that sounds like American folk songs and spirituals, although none is a complete copy of any specific song or hymn.
This is such crowd pleasing music, with dramatic passages, ravishingly beautiful sequences and simple melodies, that any competent performance is likely to thrill, but this was more than a simply competent performance.
Maestro Kluge has built the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra into an ensemble that can handle challenges with aplomb, and here each section had a moment to shine. They played with a consistent sense of confidence that is the mark of any fine performance, and Kluge managed to inspire them to exceed confidence and reach a level of passion that made the finale thrilling.
While this was the final evening concert of the 2006-07 season, the orchestra still has one more trick up its collective sleeve. On the
afternoon of June 10 they present a children's festival concert "The Magic of Music," at which they will perform Mussorgski's "Pictures at an Exhibition" accompanied by a video of children's art. To make the event special for youngsters, they will have an "instrument petting zoo" where children can get to know the individual instruments.
Brad Hathaway reviews theater and music in Virginia, Washington and Maryland
as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a website covering theater in
the region (www.PotomacStages.com). He can be reached at