By John Shulson
Friday’s Virginia Symphony Orchestra performance at the Ferguson Art Center was a mixed bag of musical offerings, ranging from the not familiar to the very familiar. Conceptually, it was one of director JoAnn Falletta’s more interesting assembly of works.
The affair opened with Germaine Tailleferre’s Overture, a bright and brassy work that set the evening off on a peppy, propulsive note. Tailleferre and Poulenc, heard later in the program, were members of the “Les Six,” 20th century French musicians, who crafted new sounds and compositions into overall avant-garde designs — all in opposition to the romanticism of the likes of Wagner and Strauss and the impressionism of Debussy.
Written in 1932, Overture’s sound remains fresh, with innovative touches and even a few elements resembling Poulenc. Sadly, Tailleferre is not more widely known, since evidence of her talent was abundantly clear here. Also not widely known is French-influenced Canadian Andre Mathieu and his Piano Concerto No. 4.
His musical output was modest, but certainly, based on this concerto, his contributions were significant. Thanks to Falletta for bringing these composers to us.
The concerto reflects Mathieu’s influence by Rachmaninoff and Debussy — flowing, lyrical and expressive. An all but forgotten piece, guest Canadian pianist Alain Lefevre, a Mathieu champion, helped resurrect it and bring it back to life some 10 years ago. It’s a romantic work of drama and lush, sweeping lines. With powerful first and third movements, the middle Rachmaninoff-ish Andante is deeply emotional, its expressive lines so compelling that Lefevre was occasionally moved to conduct from the bench. His performance was impressive, an obvious physicality evident throughout.
However,uncommon for Falletta, she allowed the VSO’s involvement to overshadow much of the hard keyboard work on display. There were times when his more intense, full bodied playing was obscured. Only later listening to a recording of him and this work was I able to appreciate the full extent of his skill and the balanced fit between orchestra and piano.
Some nine years ago, the VSO brought Poulenc’s stirring setting of the “Gloria” portion of the Mass ordinary to the stage. It was a welcomed return. “Gloria‘s” sacred text and substance is a study in contrasting elements such as dissonances and rich textures, lyricism and percussiveness, lightness and darkness, majesty and mystery.
It opens with a bold fanfare that quickly becomes a choral declaration, superbly provided by the 100-some strong VSO Chorus, as, indeed, was its solid delivery of this colorful work throughout. Its six sections cast the textual elements of faith in moods both jovial and somber. It’s a powerful work that illustrates Poulenc’s brilliance in harmonic design, most especially the exquisite, richly crafted closing.
Soprano soloist Anna Feucht brought appeal to her three segments and their powerful, sensitive natures, although more finesse in ending phrases in the upper realms would have enhanced the work’s ethereal qualities.
For people of a certain age, the movie “Ten” and Bo Derek and Dudley Moore (well, mostly Derek) on the beach will forever be associated with “Bolero” and its seductive qualities. Maybe one of the most overplayed pieces ever, it still manages to draw you in as tension builds from nearly inaudible rhythmic beats in the snare drum (nonstop for the work’s 18-or-so minute duration) over which are gradually added layers of instruments playing a repetitive theme, eventually exploding into full blown sound and fury. The VSO and Falletta embraced “Bolero’s” spirit and gave it a swell reading. And bravo to Scott Jackson whose unflinching effort kept all 4,050 snare drum beats steady and metronomic, helping move the drama forward to a sweeping climax and evening’s close.
Shulson, a Williamsburg resident, has covered the arts for more than 40 years. He makes a guest appearance in Margaret Truman’s “Murder at the Opera.”