Delaware is blessed to have the Central Ohio Symphony in the community. The quality of the performances is consistently high, and the program selections carefully balance the traditional with the new, and the serious with the more lighthearted.
Attending the performances is an experience that involves the body, mind, and soul. The March 2017 concert, part of the 38th season, was no exception.
The three works performed on Sunday, March 4, in Ohio Wesleyan’s David S. Gray Chapel were examples of what is often referred to as “program music.” These are instrumental works that tell a story or paint a picture.
The “tone poems” might describe or illustrate a human life, a literary work, a landscape, or a natural event. Program music particularly flourished during the Romantic period, between Berlioz and Strauss, but even in the 20th century it remained a popular genre with names such as Stravinsky, Holst, or Copland.
The first work was “The Ferry Crossing” by the young composer Jennifer Jolley (born in 1981), who is in her fourth year at Ohio Wesleyan. Jolley lived in Vermont for several years, and her piece evokes the endless Lake Champlain that divides the Green Mountain State from New York. There are no bridges to Burlington or other cities, so ferries are used to transport people and their vehicles across. The lake is normally placid and serene.
A string orchestra gives voice to the deep and mysterious waters. The metaphoric work, like the journey of life itself, is not free of darker undercurrents and crosscurrents, but the mood is essentially one of peace and tranquility.
Blended in are six wind instruments (two flutes, two horns, and two oboes) that may describe the comings and goings of the various boats and their passengers while in transit. Human destiny is artfully interwoven with the timeless and universal. The tonality of “The Ferry Crossing” suggests harmony, and the sailing is smooth and steady.
The second work on the program was “The Carnival of the Animals” by Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921). The composer uses various musical instruments to imitate the sounds or behavior of animals. In this performance, however, the fourteen short sections were not in the traditional arrangement by Saint-Saëns himself, but rather in a new arrangement by contemporary British composer Richard Blackford (born in 1954).
This is the first time the new cycle could be heard in America. The rearrangement is not a revolutionary departure from what listeners’ ears are used to. The original music by Saint-Saëns is unchanged as are the animals. However, Blackford uses a solo horn rather than a cello to illustrate the swan’s graceful gliding through the water.
The elephant is now depicted by a very low and deep contrabassoon, which seems appropriate. Strangely enough, however, Blackford replaces “The Pianists” with wind instruments.
The second half of the concert was devoted to the “Symphonie fantastique” by French composer Hector Berlioz (1803-1869). It is a demanding work, full of treacherous terrain, but the orchestra under the baton of Maestro Jaime Morales-Matos handled the challenging oeuvre well. The five movements are “Reverie,” “A Ball,” “Scene in the Fields,” “March to the Scaffold,” and “Night of the Witches’ Sabbath.”
The eerie story that Berlioz’ tone poem tells is convoluted and involves love, murder, and execution. It is full of longing and passion, ecstasy and agony, and moves from quiet reverie to merry revelry. Even after the protagonist is guillotined, the macabre tale continues with a descent into a diabolical and nightmarish Walpurgis Night.
The whole adventure is probably nothing but a figment of the imagination of the male hero or antihero, but the story line provides Berlioz with rich opportunities to disrupt established norms, break the mold, and shock his audience with weird, hallucinogenic, and iconoclastic sound combinations that his contemporaneous listeners had not heard before. The colorful, ambitious, and bold work written in 1830 anticipates Wagner, Tchaikovsky, and Mahler.
The audience loved the selection of the three pieces and their skillful and precise, yet passionate execution by the Symphony and Morales-Matos. Most everyone was mesmerized and listened closely. A standing ovation awaited the orchestra at the end.
These are difficult economic times for the arts in general, including symphonies and operas. But the Central Ohio Symphony seems to be in good fiduciary and artistic hands. It also enjoys the enthusiastic support of the entire community as well as private and public benefactors.
However, it is also obvious that the audience is not getting younger. Ongoing efforts to attract younger folks to the concerts should continue if the symbiotic relationship is to endure. Let’s hope the Symphony’s voyage will continue as smoothly and steadily as Jennifer Jolley’s “The Ferry Crossing.”
The Symphony’s next concert is scheduled for Saturday, April 22, at 7:30 p.m. Once again, a healthy mixture of old and new is on the program, and cellist Michael Carrara will be the featured guest artist. Ernest Bloch’s “Schlomo” for cello and orchestra is a soulful and moving work that should not be missed.
Thomas K. Wolber teaches foreign languages at Ohio Wesleyan University. He has an undergraduate degree from a German university, plays the piano, and is passionate about classical music. His email is [email protected]