On Sunday, the San Juan Symphony made good on its 30th anniversary theme: On Fire.
When a concert opens with Beethoven’s “Overture to the Creatures of Prometheus” and ends with Shostakovich’s defiant Fifth Symphony, metaphors of struggle, sacrifice and fire are all in play. Add a world premiere of a trumpet concerto composed for and performed by a stunningly talented young musician battling serious illness and you have the Promethean myth vividly on stage.
If that isn’t enough drama, the current competition for a new music director after Arthur Post’s 13-year tenure concluded with the appearance of Geoffrey Robson. Trained at Yale and Michigan State University and currently associate conductor of the Arkansas Symphony, Robson brought experience, scholarship and superior musicianship to this particularly challenging program.
Robson crisply conducted the initially stark and highly muscular Beethoven overture in a swift five minutes. Then he addressed the audience. He acknowledged a warm local welcome and rigorous rehearsals with the regional musicians who make up our orchestra.
Robson introduced the world premiere by briefly telling the story of James Stephenson’s trumpet concerto, composed for the soloist of the hour, Ryan Anthony.
Anthony is building a solo career while serving as principal trumpet in the Dallas Symphony. He has won us over before with his intense musicality and everyman charm. This time, however, life has changed for the 46-year-old musician. Three years ago, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a terminal cancer of the bone marrow.
As composer James Stephenson wrote in the program notes, Anthony decided to combat his illness in several ways, including commissioning a concerto that “would be about his story.”
Stephenson was in the audience when Anthony and the orchestra performed the work for the first time. In three seamless movements, the concerto travels from energetic, life-affirming music through a dark wail of recognition to music that suggests resilience and possible redemption.
Anthony’s rendering of each musical mood knit into Stephenson’s rich orchestration that was full of surprises. Contrasting textures and dynamics brought each movement to a stirring climax. The inclusion of a small off-stage ensemble suggested not only other voices in Anthony’s struggle but an eerie sense of life surrounding the isolation of illness.
Conductor Robson maximized all the musical contrasts, especially when marshalling forces for a fast, highly energetic final movement. A flare of Promethean flame and human defiance seemed to propel the work to its extraordinary conclusion.
When the audience exploded in admiration, Anthony invited the composer on stage. A bear hug followed by a joint bow triggered another upsurge of emotional applause.
After intermission, few may have noticed Anthony slipping quietly into the brass section to augment the trumpets for Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. On rare occasions, a soloist will become simply an orchestral colleague; it says something important.
The four-movement, 45-minute gargantua is a towering mountain of music. Robson confidently led his musicians through the ascent, lingered on plateaus with almost agonizingly gradual accelerandos, toyed with the parodic second movement waltz, and masterfully proceeded through to the strident, martial conclusion. This was music for mature audiences only, delivered with verve and commitment.
How could Robson know that this defiant work from the Stalin era would contain so many Promethean echoes of the two earlier works on the program?
email@example.com. Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, art historian and arts journalist.