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ARCHIVE: SSSO (October 2013)

Originally published 10/5/2013


I went to the Shepherd School Symphony Orchestra tonight at Stude Concert Hall. Conductor Larry Rachleff led a varied program of de Falla, Korngold, and Brahms, which included over 125 students. This follows last week’s chamber orchestra concert featuring a different group of over 60 musicians. Both concerts were outstanding. Any music school would be proud to claim either one of these wonderful ensembles, let alone both. This evening's concert began with Three Dances from “The Three-Cornered Hat” by de Falla. The first dance, Seguidillas, opened with a delicate texture that was tonally magical. In what was in evidence all evening, the violin sections moved and phrased as one, with a blended and cohesive sound and impeccable intonation. The second dance, Farruca, featured beautiful solos by two horns- one English and one French. The last dance, the most familiar, was Jota. The full ensemble played with stylistic energy, supported by well-played percussion parts.


The Korngold Violin Concerto featured competition winner Yi Zhao as soloist. Erich Wolfgang Korngold was a child prodigy who became best known for his lavish and intricate musical scores for films. The violin concerto has imbedded in its DNA the stylistic idiom of Hollywood and the movies. The first and greatest proponent of the concerto was Jascha Heifetz. His recording is legendary, and is well-known (or should be) to stringed instrument musicians. It is one of his best, which makes it among a handful of the finest violin recordings ever made. Anyone playing the piece, therefore, must deal with that lofty standard. Yi Zhao plays the violin at or near that level of technical expertise. Her sound was warm and clear and had no problem projecting throughout the large hall. Her use of the bow was free and all the bowing difficulties were negotiated without a hitch. Her vibrato was varied and expressive, and her intonation was near-perfect, including very high and treacherous chromatic passages. There was beautiful playing and a great deal to admire, but I sometimes yearned for more of the searing intensity and heart-breaking intimacy the piece has to offer. The muted passages of the concerto find the ideal model in the violin solos played by Toscha Seidel in old MGM movies. While Heifetz’ inimitable style cannot be replicated, the spirit and emotion of the time can be experienced by watching old black-and-white movies, something not attained with the visually glossy and computer-generated imagery (CGI) of today’s movies. The artistic result would be no more “old-fashioned” than researching baroque performance practice. Coupled with the prodigious talent of the performer, this extra step could make the piece sound even better.


Brahms’ Fourth, which can be considered the “Autumn” of his four symphonies, includes some of his most intimate and passionate expressions of emotions. Always the traditionalist, Brahms looked back rather than forward when choosing forms, and he used conventional orchestrations, making an added triangle in the third movement a novelty. The orchestration features almost every conceivable combination within and between sections, and high technical hurdles (especially in the strings), making simply performing the work a significant challenge. The SSSO rolled over all hurdles and gave a terrific performance, worthy of a professional orchestra. The piece has become a benchmark for conductors to exhibit interpretive and technical control. Rachleff shaped the opening theme simply, without giving undue importance to the rests in the melody, resulting in a clear melodic line rather than an obsessively controlled series of gaps. That simplicity and clarity of thought carried throughout the four movements, bringing a fresh approach to the work. Each of the young musicians responded with an energy and passion that can only come from fine preparation by and trust in their conductor. The whole of the performance sounded virtually flawless, with a few moments standing out for me. Along with the touching opening, the development section of the first movement was played with orchestral colors that exhibited a respect for the harmonic texture. Outstanding wind solos, unisons, octaves, and harmonies in thirds and sixths coursed throughout the second movement. The second theme in the recapitulation of the second movement, played by the strings and led by the violins on the G-string, was glorious in its tonal and expressive richness. The third movement scherzo had brilliance and a confident swagger. (It was great to really hear the syncopated B-flat the violas have in m. 275.) The fourth movement, a passacaglia, gave each section a chance to shine, and each did. The extended flute solo was played with a golden sound and nuanced timing, followed by the trombones, bassoons, and horns in close harmony. The coda was energetic, almost kinetic in its forward propulsion as it drew to a tragic close. The audience, which included more than a few proud teachers and parents, rewarded the performance with a standing ovation.

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