An American surprise at Danbury Symphony concert
"An American Salute” supplied the audience with music from four of the finest American composers of the 20th century: three New Yorkers-Morton Gould, Aaron Copland and John Corigliano - and one Pennsylvanian, Samuel Barber.
Does this suggest that the Northeast is where you should be born to be successful in the classical field? (Need we add Charles Ives and George Gershwin to complete the argument?)
Morton Gould’s robust "American Salute,” based on the Civil War tune "When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” opened the concert. Those brisk unison staccato blasts were followed by a brief segment of shaky orchestral playing, but Johnny’s march calmed the troops, and the short work ended with musical panache.
Following the patriotic work, a slender, elegantly gowned 15-year old Tema Watstein came on stage to be the soloist in Samuel Barber’s "Concerto for Violin and Orchestra.” The Danbury Symphony has seldom programmed concertos and, if memory serves me, never in the past 20 years have they performed a full concerto with a teenage musician as soloist.
Watstein, winner of several first prizes in Connecticut instrumental competitions, quickly evidenced confident playing, a warm tone when needed, and fine technique in the rapid passages.
At times the solo violin was overwhelmed by the orchestra. It might have helped if the soloist had been closer to the lip of the stage, because even several feet back on the Ives stage allows the sound to be swallowed up.
Her playing was first-rate. She brought the appropriate lyrical quality to the first two movements - allegro moderato and andante. These lengthy movements showed the romantic side of the composer, and the orchestra and soloist nicely coalesced in this feeling.
The final movement, "presto in moto perpetuo,” would challenge the best of violinists and orchestras. Here Watstein was unflappable, even though the orchestra’s complicated rhythmic underpinnings were often tentative. She surely has a bright future ahead.
Copland’s "Lincoln Portrait” has been performed several times in recent years by WestConn’s concert band, once with Gene Eriquez, then the city’s mayor, as narrator. Katz chose it also for Saturday’s concert, with the person speaking Lincoln’s words being the present mayor, Mark Boughton. (Future mayoral candidates should begin now to study the score!)
Once the orchestra entered the central jazzy section of the lengthy introduction, with its echoes of "Camptown Races,” it had hit its stride and provided Boughton’s subsequent cool, clear delivery with the right amount of musical punctuation, and a final dramatic flourish.
With three American composers down, and one to go, Katz surprised many in the audience by announcing that seated among them was the fourth, John Corigliano, the 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning composer (for his Symphony No. 2).
Katz also noted that Danbury’s Charles Ives would have been pleased with the forthcoming "Gazebo Dances,” which provides the kind of music one would hear performed by town bands in gazebos on a summer evening.
What followed was the orchestra’s best work of the evening. All the musicians seemed to have fun playing the dances, which began with a jaunty "Rossini-like overture” (but without the expected crescendo). This quickly evidenced the composer’s preference to short, clever melodic fragments with many rhythmic changes.
In the "peg-legged waltz,” many of the instrumentalists had a chance to shine in brief solos, while in the "long-lined adagio,” a pleasant melody grew into a Copland-sounding climax. The final "bouncy tarantella” was exactly that - a tribute to the composer’s Italian heritage.
At the end, the Academy-Award winning composer (for his music to "The Red Violin”) bounded quickly onto the stage, applauded the orchestra, and gave Katz an appreciative embrace.
The audience reacted positively to Corigliano’s salute to a past era, with one applauding concertgoer seated behind the reviewer telling her companion: "It was much nicer than Charles Ives’ music.”
Overall, it was a fine musical evening and a unique event in the history of the Danbury Symphony with the presence of one of today’s major composers.
Danbury Community Orchestra performs varied program
The concert began with the ceremonial march by Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) for the Norwegian play "Sigurd Jorsalfar” (or "Sigurd the Crusader”), a nationalist drama of the Viking era.
The warm tones of the strings, the pliant phrasing of the melodies, and the effective solo trumpet of Seth Garren all made for a rousing opening.
Good programming often means bringing something new to the audience. In this case Smith introduced five Russian folk songs orchestrated by Anatol Liadov (1855-1914). Among these charming pieces was the "Legend of the Birds” in which the flutists gave distinctive fluttering to the birds on the wing.
The essence of this orchestra is the opportunity it provides for young instrumentalists, but every year the orchestra has to say good-bye to high school seniors as many move on. Among them this year is clarinetist James Palmer of Newtown, whom Smith chose as soloist in the second movement of Mozart’s "Concerto for Clarinet.”
As Palmer himself happily acknowledged in the program notes, he’s been part of the Danbury Music Centre’s playing groups "for the better part of his life.”
The adagio second movement of the clarinet concerto is one of the composer’s most beautiful works and Palmer played it with a fluid melodic line and elegance of tone. Several perfect leaps from low to high notes showed his mastery of the clarinet, as did those portions where rapid finger work was needed. Bravo indeed!
What followed was an orchestral showpiece - the "Russian Sailors’ Dance” by Reinhold Gliere (1875-1956). The orchestra, necessarily restrained in the Mozart concerto, now let loose with its finest work of the afternoon.
Smith guided the orchestra through the dance’s slow and weighty Slavic beginning to its passionate concluding rhythms. The orchestra (strings particularly) came through with flying "Red” colors.
Smith then took the orchestra from Russian brashness to German earnestness with a performance of the contemplative second movement of Beethoven’s "Symphony No. 7.”
Here clarity of performance is demanded because there is no place to hide in Beethoven’s orchestration. Take it from someone for whom this symphony is a favorite, the orchestra played the movement very well. The tempo was well chosen and the subtle lengthy orchestral crescendos developed smoothly.
Two of Johannes Brahms’ "Hungarian Dances,” Nos. 1 and 5, brought the program to a bright conclusion. The playing was crisp and the many changes in tempo accomplished cleanly.
All in all, the Hungarian gypsies whose melodies inspired Brahms’ dances would be quite satisfied.
Years ago the Danbury Community Orchestra was performing works that were arrangements of the classics - in other words, easier-to-play versions. Longtime conductor Richard Brooks, who resigned last year, admirably weaned the orchestra off arrangements and onto the "real thing.”
What Stephen Michael Smith did was raise the performance level another notch. Clearly he gained the trust and confidence of the players to do this. The cheering audience at the end of the performance knew they had experienced something special.
Outside of St. Peter Church, spring had finally sprung, while inside brilliant sunlight illuminated the stained glass windows. It all seemed a benediction upon the Danbury Concert Chorus’ performance of "Requiem” by Maurice Durufle (1902-1986), which was taking place there.
Richard Price, in his first year as the Chorus’ conductor, and Stephen Rapp, one of the region’s finest organists, were bringing to life music that matched the magnificence of the newly arrived spring.
Durufle, a French organist and composer, was deeply imbued with his Catholic faith. In composing a requiem mass, he uniquely wove into its fabric the Gregorian chant melodies of the centuries-old "Mass for the Dead.”
In the first part of the afternoon’s concert, the chorus sang the ancient, but short, Gregorian mass a cappella. This introduced to the audience’s ears the Gregorian chants that would be heard later in the "Requiem.”
As an interlude, Stephen Rapp then loosed the sounds of the St. Peter Church pipe organ with a six-minute excerpt from Durufle’s "Prelude, Adagio and Chorale Variations on the Theme of ‘Veni Creator.’ ” In playing the work, Rapp expertly sampled the variety of tonal color the organ possessed, such as bassoon and breathy flute sounds.
Afterwards Price went from conductor to teacher and spoke to the audience, providing an effective explanation of the musical structure of the Durufle work. With the help of chorus and organ he presented short portions of the "Requiem,” emphasizing those that incorporate the Gregorian melodies. He also pointed out the importance of the organ’s role, which often changed from simple support to carrying the melody.
Following the intermission, the Durufle "Requiem” came to life. For 45 minutes, the large audience of some 300 heard what many consider the greatest religious composition of the 20th century. It is mainly a work of gentleness.
In the beginning "Introit,” the men’s voices quietly introduced the melody of the Gregorian chant "Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine” ("Rest eternal grant them Lord”). As the women’s voices entered, a good balance of sound between chorus and organ was achieved, which would continue throughout the performance.
Crisp entrances occurred in the fugal aspects of the "Kyrie.” In "Domine Jesu Christe,” which contained the first of the requiem’s several dramatic segments, the chorus produced the appropriate sense of fear and trembling for "Deliver them ... lest the abyss engulf them.”
Since it was "A Concert for Palm Sunday,” the "Sanctus,” with its "Hosannas” to the Lord, had special significance. The chorus performed this pivotal section admirably. Price, with clarity of direction, brought the singers gently from the calm, thrice-repeated "Sanctus” to the exuberant "Hosanna in excelsis.” Here the combination of choral and organ sound definitely tested the church’s stability.
Some of the most effective music of the afternoon came from the women’s voices in serene passages, as in the female-voices-only "Pie Jesu” ("Merciful Jesus”). Similarly, the a cappella beginning by the complete chorus to "Lux aeterna” had special appeal in its simplicity.
After the penultimate segment "Libera me,” with its forceful commentary of the day of wrath, the chorus calmly and resignedly brought the "Requiem” to its upbeat close with the heavenly sounds of "In Paradisum” — ”May the angels lead you into Paradise.”
It was a fine performance with few problems. Some entrances by the men lacked security, perhaps due to a shortage of tenors. Also there was a noticeable tiring of the voices as they came to the end of such an extensive vocal workout.
But these are almost always inevitable problems of a non-professional choral group. So read this as aspects for future improvement, not as criticisms of the performance, because the afternoon will be recalled with great pleasure. Thank you Richard Price and Stephen Rapp for developing the unusual presentation. The venue, the music, the sun streaming through the stained glass — who could ask for anything more?
Murasaki Duo performs in ‘sold out’ benefit
This husband and wife pair, who teach at Luther College (Decorah, Iowa), had come to Danbury during their spring vacation week to perform a benefit concert for the Centre. And why should they have done that? Well, there is a local connection - Eric’s mother is assistant to the executive director of the Centre and his father is a professor in the math department at WestConn.
A "sold out” Marian Anderson Recital Hall heard the duo perform music of Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, and the Argentinean Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983). It was the latter’s "Pampeana No. 2,” a ten-minute rhapsody, that began the program. Here the cellist and pianist had clearly distinct roles. The piano emphasized Latin rhythms, evoking the world of the gauchos on the "pampas,” the vast treeless grassy plains of Argentina. The cello, in lyrical outbursts over these rhythms, explored both the lowest and highest registers of the instrument.
In Beethoven’s "Sonata in C Major, Op. 102, No. 1,” this democratic composer saw to it that the cello and piano became equal partners in melody and rhythm. The 15-minute work, in two movements, had no memorable melodies, but the performance evidenced the cohesive spirit of Kominami and Kutz. In the allegro vivace segment both instrumentalists provided supple fingerwork; in the adagio, Kutz exhibited the ability to draw from the cello warm and breathtakingly sustained notes.
In the second half of the program, the duo presented one of the Mount Everests of the piano-cello literature, the "Sonata in G minor” by Rachmaninoff. This four-movement work has been recorded by the duo on a soon-to-be-released CD. It was clear in their performance that they had mastered the work.
Particularly effective was the second movement, allegro scherzando, with its driving rhythm and rapidly descending six note theme that brought to mind the sinister aspects of Schubert’s "Erl King.” Since Rachmaninoff, prior to composing the piece in 1901, had battled severe depression, this agitated second movement may have reflected this. But the andante movement differed. Here the piano and cello shared beautiful melodies, suggesting that peace had descended upon the composer.
In this sonata, as in Rachmaninoff’s concertos, the piano’s role was often dense in structure. (Few composers could write more notes in one measure than Rachmaninoff.) Kominami, though diminutive in stature, produced the largest of tones. At times, however, this led to an overwhelming of the cello’s part.
Throughout the evening, the duo was note perfect in their playing. Kominami exhibited exceptional fluidity on the keyboard, while Kutz’s tone never wavered in pitch. In lyrical passages, dulcet and satisfying tones emerged from his cello, an 1877 gem by the Bolognese master Raffaele Fiorini.
Most certainly the Luther College music students have two highly gifted musician-teachers in these degree holders from the Julliard School. An enthusiastic audience made it clear that Kominami and Kutz would be welcome back. In fact, Kominami will return next spring to perform Rachmaninoff’s masterful and popular "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” with the Danbury Symphony Orchestra.
Leroy Anderson’s music
charms a large audience
An American master of the orchestral miniature, Anderson died in 1975 but clearly lives on through his music. Among the 300 present to enjoy the sparkling concert was his widow, Eleanor Anderson. Son Kurt Anderson also took part, both as a conductor and, believe it or not, as a typist.
If you are of this writer’s generation (and most in the audience were), you may remember purchasing 78 rpm recordings of "Blue Tango” or "Fiddle Faddle,” two of the most famous of Anderson’s works. In these and dozens of other compositions, Anderson showed his knack of taking a simple melodic idea and turning it into a three minute gem.
In an excellent decision, Katz chose to conduct many Anderson compositions that would feature members of the Symphony as soloists. Three flutists - Katherine Isles, Debra Morris, and Carol Pierce - gave a special jauntiness to "The Penny-Whistle Song.” Clarinetists Ann Howell, Robert Carlsen, and John Lissauer turned "Clarinet Candy” into a rollicking tour de force.
"A Trumpeter’s Holiday,” featured Stanley Schmidt’s gentle tones, followed by fellow trumpeters Phil Pitner and Tracey Pelella joining him for "Bugler’s Holiday,” played in virtuoso style.
What Anderson clearly understood was the value of a musical gimmick and he often succeeded brilliantly to build on the unusual. Thus, in "The Waltzing Cat,” the string players of the orchestra (all of whom stood while playing this) provided the cat’s meows, while a barking dog (Thank you, Emily Jones!) changed the cat from three-quarter time to a rapid retreat.
In "The Typewriter,” while the orchestra imparted a clever perpetual motion theme, Katz and Kurt Anderson pecked away in rhythmic patterns at separate typewriters. The well-known "Syncopated Clock” received a mesmerizing "tick-tock” performance.
Then, to prove that his father was also capable of simple quiet beauty, son Kurt conducted a performance of the exquisite "Forgotten Dreams.”
Anderson was also an exceptional arranger, as evidenced by his adaptation of Christmas carols into "A Christmas Festival.” And what a performance by the symphony! The conclusion was as rousing as could ever be hoped for.
Most of the Harvard-educated composer’s works do have a strong rhythmic underpinning, something well-established by percussionist Albert Montecalvo. He performed with exceptional timing on drums, triangle, and wood blocks, positioned directly in front of the conductor. The orchestra must have appreciated his unifying force.
But there was more than music to the program. For example, at one point while Katz spoke briefly about the composer (who with his family moved to Woodbury in 1949), a screen descended and photos of Anderson were projected on it. At another interval, Anderson himself was heard describing his compositional habits.
Near the end of the concert, Katz auctioned off his position as conductor to the highest bidder - but only for the purpose of leading the Anderson favorite, "Sleigh Ride.” Miguel Espinosa won the auction, and striding to the podium, he squared his shoulders, surveyed the harnessed instrumentalists, and gave an appropriate downbeat. The result? A pleasantly smooth ride was had by all.
It was an afternoon of joy in music. The Danbury Symphony, which has never sounded better, played as if inspired by the very presence of the Anderson family members and a highly enthusiastic audience. It was a proud day for the Danbury Music Centre, Katz, and all the musicians. So too it must have been for Leslie Granat, who provided major funding so the music of Leroy Anderson could come to Danbury.
Young pianist gives thrilling performance
It was a joy to see so many children at this concert. Conductor Katz invited the audience to sing the opening selection, the "Star Spangled Banner." Throughout the entire program he spoke to the audience, directing his remarks to the children.
With his affable manner and sense of humor, everyone responded with enthusiasm.
Of the world's music represented there were familiar orchestral pieces such as "Pomp and Circumstance, No. 1" by the English composer Edward Elgar. Aside from its well-known march used at graduations, the composition is very exciting and the orchestra did some of its finest playing in the not so familiar sections.
For Russia there were the "Polovetsian Dances" by Alexander Borodin. This is music familiar to those who know the Broadway show, "Kismet." Its rather exotic orchestration enabled Katz to illustrate the various sections and instrumentation of the orchestra.
Arriving in Poland on the world's tour we came to Frederick Chopin and Miss Rhee, who, wearing a sleeveless plum colored full-length dress, played the first movement of this composer's "Piano Concerto in E Minor."
Here is a gifted young lady who obviously not only has considerable talent and intelligence, but her performing also possesses that added flare which makes for truly exciting pianism and virtuosity. Her fluid technique dashed off the demanding parts of the concerto with physical ease. Her tone was large without being percussive and also sang warmly in the lyrical passages.
In truth, she was most impressive. Nor did she have any of the weaving about or hovering over the keyboard - mannerisms that afflict so many of today's young aspiring pianists. She sat erect and let the music speak for itself.
It was no wonder she received a standing ovation. Lifting her hand to her face in astonishment, it was refreshing to see this natural gesture of thrill and innocence for her triumphant moment.
After a long applause, the program continued. Conductor Katz returned to the stage and spoke to the audience about the stunning performer and the many notes she had to learn: "probably over 4,800 and - oh, I really don't know" he quipped, and the audience laughed, but understood the point of the pianist's accomplishment.
The program, after circumnavigating the globe, returned to this country, and now comes the "special twist" of which I wrote earlier.
It happened when Maestro Katz called for a volunteer from the audience. One such lad by the name of Nathan Appelson came forth. About age 11 and wearing a striped shirt and jeans, he was ushered to the podium and handed the baton, and Katz helped him begin the final selection, Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever." Nathan was then left alone to conduct the orchestra - which, by the way, he did with both hands, all the way to the end!
Move over, Maestro Katz!
It was a rousing, rollicking, even frolicking and bang-up finale! The orchestra was at its best.
Everyone stood up and applauded. Should not all of us stand up for the wonderful ways in which the Danbury Music Centre supports and encourages musical talent in the lives of our area youth?
Price’s direction makes Handel’s ‘Messiah’ riveting
This year, the popular free event, with major funding by Union Savings Bank, had heightened interest. Richard Price, the new music director of the Danbury Concert Chorus, was replacing James Humphreville, who retired this year after decades of conducting “Messiah,” also to standing-room-only crowds.
For this musical transition, Price continued the Danbury tradition of a two-hour version of “Messiah” — the entire Part I, then selections from Parts II and III — instead of the complete three-hour work. His musical forces were the Danbury Concert Chorus and Baroque Chamber Orchestra (members of the Danbury Symphony).
Let us not waste words. In his first attempt, Mr. Price produced a riveting performance of this great oratorio. He conducted from a podium higher than the usual to assure that the 100-plus members of the Chorus and the 21 instrumentalists — spread completely across the wide sanctuary — had complete eye contact with him. Rarely glancing at the score, he cued firmly and transferred his musical intentions to each and every musician — singer or instrumentalist — with sweeping arm movements.
The orchestral performance throughout the evening was outstanding. From the first measures of the “Overture,” Price drew from his players (including an organist and harpsichordist) a vibrant, crisp musical foundation for the singers.
He paced the first part of “Messiah” with relatively fast tempi for both solo arias and choruses. Of course, it is the jubilant aria “Every valley shall be exalted” that sets “Messiah” in vocal motion. It was beautifully sung by tenor Nicholas Cotellessa, who thereby set a high standard for the three other soloists to follow. His full-bodied voice projected throughout the large church with ease.
Bass Walter DuMelle’s husky voice may have seemed a bit unfocused in his first aria, but by the second, “The people that walked in darkness,” DuMelle was in command. When at the end of the oratorio he was called upon for “The trumpet shall sound,” he sang with appropriate authority.
Mezzo-soprano Eunice Hill’s warm voice carried particularly well in the vaulted neo-Gothic church. In the aria “He was despised and rejected of men,” her excellent breath control in long phrases contrasted with an ability to energize short phrases. Little could have been improved in her rendition of the lullaby-like “He shall feed His flock.”
Laura Danehower Whyte presented a brilliant soprano voice that had a bell-like clarity, broad range and flexibility. Whyte’s diction also was notable. “Rejoice greatly,” one of her four arias, evidenced note-perfect vocal leaps. In the splendid “Come unto Him,” as in all her other solos, she provided little accents on key words that made the listener more aware of the importance of what was being sung.
And now about the choral singing. Let’s face it, for most people, Handel’s “Messiah” rises and falls on the effectiveness of the choral portions. In this case, the oratorio rose to “9.5” out of a perfect “10.” Through Price’s leadership, the 100 singers conveyed the unique quality of each of the 11 choruses sung. And what variety!
Some of these emphasize wonder (“For unto us a Child is born”), deep emotion (“Behold the Lamb of God”), exultation (“Hallelujah”), and rapturous praise (the final “Amen”).
Choral attacks were sharp, giving the emotions in the music a chance to burst forth immediately. Only once in the evening, and that in the very opening chorus “And the glory of the Lord,” did one sense a bit of confusion in choral entries.
Price’s excellent preparation of the singers, and his unusual insights, often appeared in subtle ways. For example, in “All we like sheep,” a short pause between “us” and “all” in the phrase “and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all” gave a unique dramatic impact. The ever-popular “Hallelujah Chorus” was taken in moderate tempo, but Price saw to it that such key phrases as “King of Kings and Lord of Lords!” were delivered in ebullient fashion.
To some, the greatest chorus in “Messiah” is the final one: “Worthy is the Lamb,” with its fugal “Amen” conclusion. I tend to agree. So when nine measures from the end of the “Amen,” the soprano section drew from the heavens that glorious high “A,” chills ran down my back. Certainly the audience’s roar of approval, while the final majestic sounds still reverberated, suggests that next year the Church may be filled an hour before the performance.
Danbury ‘Nutcracker’ splendid
Before considering the general spectacle of the ballet, let me say one thing — any “Nutcracker” thrives because of the brilliance of Tchaikovsky’s music. No composer ever put together so many different tuneful passages into one and a half hours of music.
In conducting the Danbury Symphony Orchestra for the ballet, David Katz, in his first year as the Orchestra’s conductor, focused on the incredible rhythmic variety of the score and led a fine musical performance.
Now to what happened on stage. Watching the gathering of the guests for the Christmas party, it was the excellence of the costuming, with rich Victorian colors, that continually caught my attention. Dramatically, to a great extent the first part of the ballet relies on the ability of little Clara (mimed and danced charmingly by Danielle Rose Dorsey) and her eccentric Uncle Drosselmeyer (created by the always dramatic Brad Bechard) to keep the audience engaged. That they did.
The ballet truly came to life with the battle between the youthful (though unusually corpulent) mice and the briskly martial toy soldiers. During the fight, exceptional staging kept the 40 young dancers in a state of humorous organized confusion. After the Prince (stealthily danced by Zachary J. Robinson) finished off the Mouse King (a high-kicking Sheila DePalma-Robinson), Clara and her Prince rode off to the Kingdom of Snow.
It was this splendid scene of classical ballet — beautiful lighting, snowflakes falling, and a highly synchronized corps de ballet — that showed how improved this production has become. Kelly McCormack as the Snow Queen danced elegantly.
The second act of this “Nutcracker” production no longer uses props to indicate the traditional “Land of Sweets.” (Who can forget the huge amorphous candies hanging above the dancers in years past?) The act began with two-dozen delightful “angels” circling the stage with their sparkling halos to welcome the Sugar Plum Fairy. During each of the eight dances that followed, appropriate colors backlit the scene, as with a rich terracotta for the “Hot Chocolate” Spanish dance.
Space doesn’t allow mentioning all the dances, but suffice it to say that each was totally satisfying to watch. Among these were the sensuous Arabian “Coffee,” the frenetic Russian “Trepak,” with its 20 cross-armed dancers, and the helter-skelter machinations of 19 young dancers emerging from under the huge hoop skirt of “Mother Ginger,” a role portrayed by Mayor Mark Boughton.
In the final dance, the “Waltz of the Flowers,” the swirling dancers, costumed in shimmering lime and salmon colors, matched the orchestral brilliance of Tchaikovsky’s music with every step.
Still, in one respect, the best was yet to come: the pas de deux of the Sugar Plum Fairy, danced by Lauren Marie Jaeger, and her Cavalier, danced by Roddy Doble. Both of these young talents, who are in their early teens, showed stage presence far beyond their years.
Both tall and slim, they radiated youthful vigor. The two made the perfect pair: she always in balance in her turns and he always supremely light in his jumps.
It would be a mistake to end without listing the people who have honed this “Nutcracker” so beautifully: Arthur Fredric (Artistic Director), James Robey (Director, Choreographer), Melissa Suzanne Gerth (Associate Choreographer), Laurie Toothill (Costume Designer), Francis Arnold Daley (Technical Director), Peter Petrino (Lighting Designer), and Van Maltas (Production Stage Manager).
Finally, let’s not forget that it is the Danbury Music Centre that has nurtured and transformed Dorothy Burdette’s original production into a magical world for children and adults alike.
Varied choral music pleases crowd
Price chose a program of varied choral works, beginning with the “Mass in G Major,” composed by an 18-year-old Franz Schubert (1797-1828). Though always on pitch, the 60-voice chorus was tentative in the first portion (perhaps nervousness, perhaps because of the Latin language), but sprang to life in the “Sanctus,” “Hosanna,” and “Benedictus.” The fervor of the “Hosannas,” led by the sopranos, contrasted beautifully with Schubert’s masterful “Benedictus,” sung by soloists Karen Evans (soprano), Michael Steinberger (tenor), and Kent Smith (baritone). Joanne Spring accompanied effectively at the piano.
After intermission, and prior to conducting “Three American Mountain Hymns,” Price paid tribute to arrangers, the unsung heroes of the choral repertoire. With musical illustrations from the Chorus, he showed the audience how an expert arranger (in this case Alice Parker) deals with repeated phrases within a song. To maintain musical interest, the arranger assigns each recurring phrase a variation in structure or rhythm.
In performing the “Hymns,” the Chorus blended wonderfully. Though relatively calm in “Bright Canaan” and “Vernon,” in “Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal,” the singers unleashed special enthusiasm. As the phrase “Hallelujah, praise the Lamb” reoccurred, the singers gave the Parker variations special vim and vigor.
As a musical memorial to the late Rabbi Jerome Malino, one of the Centre’s founders, the Chorus and baritone Kent Smith then performed (in Hebrew) “Meditation” and “Mah Tovu” from Ernest Bloch’s “Sacred Service.” Bloch (1880-1959), Swiss-born but who became an American citizen, premiered this work in New York in 1934, a year before Malino came to Danbury. The singing was heartfelt and provided a luminous background to Smith’s compelling solos.
Malino was also a man who espoused the universality of humankind. Quite appropriately, the next selection brought attention to the thousands of Brazilians now calling Danbury their home. It was “Esperanca,” a religious folk song from Brazil. Sung in Portuguese, it proved to be an unexpected highlight of the afternoon. The singers, with quiet simplicity, treated the melody perfectly.
By contrast, in the following work — ”Choose Something Like a Star,” a Robert Frost poem set to music by Randall Thompson (1899-1984) — there was a variety of emotional intensities in the singing, and a beautiful pianissimo ending.
Three spirituals concluded the program. “Elijah Rock” featured the undermanned tenor and bass sections in their finest moment. In “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” softly lullaby-like at first, the voices then responded vigorously to the altos’ firm vision: “I looked over Jordan, and what did I see.” In “Ride the Chariot,” spurred on by soprano Karen Evans’ repeated clarion call “Are you ready for the journey?” the chorus roused the audience harmoniously and ended on a spirited high note.
Overall, the concert proved quite satisfying. Yet, to some, including this listener, the sound of the 60-voice chorus should have had greater aural impact. Part of the difficulty is the reverberationless Ives Concert Hall. Another is the need for a larger number of tenors and basses. Also, as the Chorus develops, and singers become more secure in their music, their voices will project more effectively.
Price and the Chorus have begun their new relationship successfully. In these first months, the conductor has attracted far more singers than in past years. Clearly he has made this difference with fervor and ability, the latter particularly noticeable in the fact that he conducted the entire concert without music scores. His conducting style, which may be called fervently enthusiastic, is clearly appreciated by the singers and the audience. And he knows how to devise an interesting program.
The future is definitely bright for developing the Danbury Concert Chorus into another excellent singing group for the Western region of Connecticut. Rabbi Malino would be pleased to know that this special part of his beloved Danbury Music Centre is in good hands.
New orchestra director debuts
The improvement in the Danbury Symphony’s performances over the past 17 years has been impressive. Katz’s decision to begin the concert with “Serenade for String Orchestra” by Edward Elgar (1857-1934) would have been a serious mistake years ago. Then the strings were the weakest part of the orchestra. Now, however, they evidenced strength in a warm and passionate performance of this short work. Composed in 1892 by a young Elgar (before he would forever change commencement exercises with his “Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1”), the work is deftly romantic. The middle segment, the larghetto, is particularly beautiful, but the “Serenade” suffers from little contrast in either tempo or structure.
In contrast to the bucolic Elgar work, Katz revved up the orchestra for “Autumn,” the final portion of “The Seasons,” a ballet composed in 1900 by Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936). The presto beginning is ebullience personified: a bacchanal depicting the effect of autumnal wine on Romanov Russians. In the adagio, a harp (unfortunately positioned too far back on stage) depicts falling leaves, but these are soon trampled by the bacchanalians as they return for the finale. Throughout “Autumn,” the orchestra played with verve, obviously enjoying this Russian ballet caviar.
To conclude the program, Katz offered a performance of “Symphony No. 2” by Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). It is unlikely that when Sibelius rode through Danbury on a train in May 1914 (on his way to conduct some of his works in Norfolk, Connecticut) he ever expected that any of his symphonies would be played in Hat City. Of his seven symphonies, “Symphony No. 2,” written in 1902, is now one of the staples of the orchestral repertoire, but always a challenge to any orchestra.
It is music with impetuous ebbs and flows, and sudden orchestral silences. In this performance, the quietly pastoral first movement found all the Danbury Orchestra’s musical elements in balance, with especially effective pizzicato work by the strings. The second movement, almost lackadaisical in its slowness, introduces many of Sibelius’ pauses, as well as melodic fragments. Among these is a reflective trumpet melody, played beautifully by the orchestra’s longtime principal trumpeter, Stanley Schmidt.
Certainly, the tempos at the beginning of the impetuous third movement were a tad too fast for the orchestra’s comfort and led to a few moments of ragged ensemble. Once calmed by the oboe, with its haunting melody commencing with nine repeated notes, the musicians moved eloquently and seamlessly into the symphony’s final movement.
It is a movement of orchestral magic. It begins with the orchestra, urged forth splendidly by horns and tuba, creating sounds like that of a Nordic giant breathing deeply. Here the Danbury musicians caught the Sibelius spirit completely. Midway, the cellists and bassists, in their finest playing of the afternoon, created the undulating underpinnings that propelled the music forward. As the orchestral choirs joined in succession, the full power of the orchestra provided a spine tingling conclusion. The audience responded with enthusiastic applause.
Katz, with his effective conducting style — never rambunctious, always clear in his cueing — summoned the orchestra to a high level of performance throughout the concert. Some transitions would have gained in clarity by extra rehearsals, but what the audience heard in all three works was an example of a community orchestra in excellent form.
The Danbury Symphony is fortunate to have such an energetic and experienced new music director to conduct its concerts, which are traditionally presented free. Local groups, in this case U S Filter, generously support these musical gifts. It is hoped that in the future such wonderful musical offerings will be accepted by more than the 200 people who attended Sunday’s concert.
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