Review: Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra's engaging "New Beginnings"

features@islandpacket.comNovember 2, 2012 

Editor's Note: Steven Branyon, a longtime musician in the Lowcountry, provided this review at the request of the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra.

'New Beginnings" was a most appropriate title assigned to the First Masterworks Series on Monday night at First Presbyterian Church as the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra began its 31st season. The program in its entirety included only two major works: Dvorak's "Cello Concerto in B, Op. 104," featuring guest artist Ilya Finkelshteyn; and "Symphony No. 2 in D, Op 43" by Sibelius.

To my knowledge this was the first time I have heard either of these works. Not knowing what to expect, I was surprised in the Dvorak piece to hear the cello used not so much as a featured solo instrument but almost as another instrument of the orchestra. This is in no way a negative observation, but a welcome change. For instance, I especially enjoyed the dialogue between the cello and the flute, which was heard several times in different contexts. Finkelshteyn used his Grancino cello (1700) for this performance, and he said that this concerto was his "absolute favorite cello concerto barring none."

He has played this work since the age of 17 and welcomed yet another chance to perform it with, in his words, "a superb orchestra." The symphony's new conductor, John Morris Russell, introduced this work with a few remarks, saying that "one can hear musical influences such as the spiritual, jazz, and blues throughout." I think this was most evident in the second movement. Also in this movement there was a combination of instruments playing unexpected chords that one might construe as a little out of tune, but they were not. It was just an uncommon orchestration in a low range, catching the listener off guard. I didn't know how this concerto was going to end and thought it near several times, but each time came a few more bars until finally a most exciting conclusion.

Russell introduced the second work by painting the composers on the program as contemporaries who composed in two very distinct styles, with Dvorak, being a student of Brahms and Sibelius looking ahead to 20th century trends. I am told Russell covered this much more thoroughly in an earlier lecture that I was unable to attend. Those who attended this lecture seemed to be satisfied and able to recognize the stylistic differences, and those who were unable to attend felt that this program did not offer enough distinction and variety. I happen to agree with the conductor that the first work, based on melodic development, was in stark contrast to the Sibelius.

There were many things that held my attention during this second work. I especially enjoyed the pizzicato bass first used in unison in the second movement and then the walking bass appearing later in harmony -- so effective! When the upper strings were in unison and when the brief fanfares were heard from the brass it was equally exciting. At the end the basses were again eagerly sawing away.

For those who were not as pleased with the variety and content of the program, let me share this thought with you. I used to be very hard and demanding on myself when listening to major works for the first time, because I could not recognize every aspect of melodic development or even follow or recognize the form of a work. I no longer beat myself up with guilt over these shortcomings. I have learned that for most of us, it takes more than one hearing of these works for them to become a more meaningful part of our lives. I also found myself not really listening for normal musical concepts like key relationships, voice leadings, or forms -- even though I know just how important they are. If we would allow ourselves, as in this last work, to be led gently downstream as in a boat, paddled by our competent conductor, allowing the boat to meander around curves and unexpected turns and exposing us to new landscapes on both sides along the way, the journey would be a great experience. We can worry about the other details upon repeat performances.

What a great concert. Bravo!

Steven Branyon is a native of York and a graduate of North Greenville University, Winthrop University and Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J. He is organist/choirmaster at All Saints Episcopal Church on Hilton Head Island.

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