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ARCHIVE: SSO (February 2014)

Originally published 2/9/2014

Tonight, the Shepherd School Symphony Orchestra performed the first of two preview concerts in preparation for The Meyerhoff Hall in Baltimore and Carnegie Hall in New York. They are good to go. The concert began with a bang, with Larry Rachleff leading an electrified Corsair Overture by Berlioz. The rhythmically intricate opening, with rapid exchanges between strings and winds, was accurately timed down to the sixteenth-note level. Not one note was unclear or faked throughout the entire orchestra. It was an extraordinary display of orchestral brilliance.

The concert continued with the Violin Concerto by Christopher Rouse, performed by Cho-Liang (Jimmy) Lin, the dedicatee. Jimmy played with an unassuming elegance and buoyancy, sailing over technical hurdles and unveiling the intimate moments in the largely scored work. The piece begins with the solo violin, with a first-desk violin, viola, and cello added one at a time to form a string quartet. The student soloists were a fine match for the master, who set a wonderful example and then invited each player to join in. As with Mahler, Rouse alternated between a chamber music setting with fewer players and the full orchestra, which allowed for a wide range of characters and emotions. Jimmy’s unforced sound was only occasionally overshadowed by the full orchestra. Three full-blown tutti parts were without the solo violin, and the orchestra took full advantage of the orchestration, producing rich sonorities. While it is shown as a two-movement work, the Rouse sounded more like a rhapsody to me. It provided an excellent vehicle for Jimmy, highlighting his strengths as a soloist and chamber musician.

The final work was Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. It is Bartok’s most performed and recorded work, and is a favorite with conductors, orchestras, and audiences. The soloists are sections of the orchestra, performing individually or together. What was revealed in this performance was an expertly trained ensemble with no weak links. The opening, with the basses and celli in octaves, was expertly balanced in favor of the lower octave. This attention to details of balance was evident throughout, and the beauty of sound in each section was a pleasure to the ear. (Although, I am partial to wanting a bit more color in the violas.) Moments that stood out were numerous–a selected few include wind duets played at different intervals in the second movement. (Some hear this movement as the procession of pairs of animals into Noah’s arc, while others dismiss that idea completely.) The opening of the third movement, Elegia, was exquisitely colorful, joined shortly later by a plaintive oboe solo. The fourth movement was Bartok’s parody of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, complete with two (ahem) farts in the slide trombone. The Finale contains brilliant passages in the strings that were, again, devoid of insecurities or faking. In the jubilant final dance the orchestra let loose, prompting a standing ovation for their stellar performance.

As the old saying goes, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.” Well, the practice has been done, and they’re ready to do us proud. I have a feeling that after their concerts on the east coast, people will be asking, “How do you get to Houston?”

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