In its first concert of 2013, the Greenwich Symphony starred itself and its players in a program that began with the celestial "Sinfonia Concertante" of Haydn, visited Dante's fifth canticle with Tchaikovsky's dark "Francesca di Rimini," and ended with the polytonal, discursive, politically tainted modern "Concerto for Orchestra" of Witold Lutoslawski. The musical mix was both riveting and exciting.
Conductor David Gilbert gave his informative opening remarks about each of the works, stating that the Tchaikovsky was part of a trilogy of works comprising "Romeo and Juliet" and "Swan Lake," and was based on Dante's "Inferno," musically describing the gates of Hell, and likening it to the Richard Wagner's "Ring Cycle." Gilbert then called Lutaslowki one of Poland's most important composers (think Symanowski and Chopin), one who incorporated folk themes in an evanescent, elusive way.
First chair GSO players, Concertmaster Krystof Wytek, cellist Daniel Miller, oboist Diane Lesser, and bassoonist Mark Davies, were essentially a stand-alone chamber music ensemble backed by the Symphony in the Haydn "Sinfonia." The lovely Allegro began in violin, joined by bassoon, then moved to an interplay with the oboe, and a restatement of the main theme. A coda for the soloists slowed, then returned to the work's upbeat tempo. Violin and bassoon opened the Andante, joined and capably backed by the orchestra in a consonant section. The lively opening of Allegro con spirito featured both the showmanship and bowmanship of Witek and Miller, who were challenged into the highest registers with rapidly ascending passages, which they tossed off with ease.
After the light, elegant Haydn, Tchaikovsky's dark, pounding and programmatic "Francesca" was a startling contrast, its opening in ponderous, portentous chords, with timpani sounding. The question "shall we Dante?" was forcefully answered, as the singing, passionate statement moved to a cymbal crescendo, the throbbing tension eased only by a flute obbligato.
Each orchestral section was used to great effect, with clashing cymbals, and French horns sounding above a pounding beat sustained by the double basses. The music moved to an ominous passage in cellos and double basses, a clarinet solo sounded against pizzicato strings leading to a melodic passage for strings and clarinets. A full orchestral passage of breathtaking beauty led this reviewer to wonder if all of Tchaikovsky sounds like a ballet score? Flutes and woodwinds led to a sobbing cello statement. The composer's interesting orchestrations, including thrills on harp, were hypnotizingly handled by all sections. The work made the listener want to reread Dante, asking the eternal question: Is all art related? A frantic passage with cymbals galloped to the work's finale.
Lutoslawski introduced his twelve-note system in the 1950s when Poland was dominated by the Soviet bloc, and the dictates of Joseph Stalin. Carefully disguising the folk melodies he incorporated into his "Concerto," the composer skirted Soviet censorship, and created an exploding, racing, complex work in his newly developed 12-tone system. The GSO interpreted this colorful, wondrous, sometimes puzzling work with fluency and comprehension.
The Intrada opened with throbbing percussion, a statement in the cellos and violas marked by a trombone blat that broke to a scampering in woodwinds, pizzicato strings leading back to an insistent thrumming and deep brasses, with folkloric fragments. A climbing crescendo died away, invoking 20th century angst, a clarinet trilling against a chiming bell. An insistent oboe, in an atonal passage, and a harp plink led to a consonant close.
Capriccio Notturno opened with dizzying violins, woodwinds joining, the xylophone sounding in scampering turmoil and tumult. A violin joined the chase of an elusive idea? Nothing? The section was martial, with a persistent rat-a-tat of snare drums. A whirring in the cellos sounded, then an atonal harp thrill, snare drums, and an abrupt thunk ending.
The concluding Passacaglia, toccata and corale was in itself a three-part, extended section, the theme going viral throughout orchestral sections. Whizzing, high woodwinds, complex orchestral colors created a gestalt of modern life, perhaps prefiguring the information assault of the 21st century. The whizzing began again in strings, then back to the mad musical journey with its remarkable scoring and pacing. This long section didn't let the listener get comfortable for a moment. The violin hit an impossibly high note, the given familiar of repertoire was constantly jarred apart, and a razzy, jazzy trumpet sounded before the conclusion.
The audience applauded wildly.
An orchestra that can move with artistic ease between the eighteenth century classicism and a complex, modern 20th century 12-tone work is to be lauded and treasured. Extending its contemporary capabilities, the Greenwich Symphony's performance was an absolute triumph of performance and programming.
The next performance of the GSO will be on March 16 and 17 and will feature violinist Sirena Huang and operatic scenes from "Die Walkure". For tickets and information, go to www.greenwichsym.org, or call 203.869.2664.
Linda Phillips, a two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee for her music review column in the Greenwich Citizen, is an amateur pianist and was a member of the performing duo Amor Artis. She writes on musical topics for Newport Life Magazine and won a Best Criticism/Review award in 2009 from the Connecticut Press Club. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.