The San Juan Symphony opened its 31st season with a high, new sheen, so gleaming it could be taken for a complete makeover. New Music Director Thomas Heuser has polished our regional orchestra and last Saturday presented it with a shine.
The orchestra played works by Mozart, Dvorák, Stravinsky and a young American composer Heuser has known since graduate school – Clint Needham. Every work called for an abundance of solo passages. And, making good on his goal to let the musicians take the spotlight, Heuser invited Concertmaster M. Brent Williams to be the featured soloist.
Williams performed the third piece on the program, Dvorák’s “Romance,” a single movement work originally drawn from a string quartet in F minor. With a smaller-than-usual orchestra, strings, winds and two horns, Heuser and Williams spun musical gold. Grounded by Dvorák’s dance-like tempo, the piece shimmered between sweet, melodic passages and flashes of violin virtuosity, including a brief cadenza. Williams made it all look and sound effortless.
The concert opened with Mozart’s Overture to The Marriage of Figaro with its famous, barely audible burr in the strings, signaling something’s afoot. Heuser capitalized on the tension he and his company created by maximizing all of Mozart’s buzz-and-crackle contrasts. This auspicious beginning led directly to the new work: Needham’s “Spires.”
Three years ago, Heuser commissioned Needham’s piece for patrons of the Idaho Falls Symphony, the sister orchestra Heuser also conducts. Inspired by cathedral spires and Palestrina’s music, Needham has woven together a stirring eight minutes of music. Once again, Heuser made the most of contrasts. Opening with a very fast section, the music aspired upward with sudden, significant pauses. At one point, an inner brass choir could be heard amid glistening strings. Every percussion instrument, including periodic snaps on a tambourine, added a sense of urgency. The work concluded in broad musical strokes as Heuser controlled a long crescendo right up to a majestic resolution.
The audience responded with energetic enthusiasm.
To complete the program, Heuser challenged his musicians with another big work: Stravinsky’s 1919 Suite based on the full ballet music known as “The Firebird.” The six-section narrative is based on a Russian fairy tale about a prince, an elusive firebird, a princess and an evil king. In the end, the fictional firebird helps the prince break the king’s spell and wins the princess.
In 1910, this music put Stravinsky at the forefront of the 20th century avant garde. Because of the ballet’s notoriety, he developed three orchestral suites based on the original music. Each is chock-full of solo passages, and Heuser chose the most popular 1919 version to fully showcase his musicians. The suite calls for a full orchestra, including an augmented percussion section.
From a beginning cloaked in the darkness of lower strings, a sense of mystery unfolded. Soon, Shelly Mann’s flute brought the magical firebird into flashing, light-filled air. And the prince’s quest into the garden of the evil king bristled with menacing horns and punishing strikes in the percussion. High drama reigned, interspersed with melodies based on Russian folk tunes and always pushed forward by relentless rhythms.
After Heuser responded to bountiful applause, he quickly signaled soloists to stand: Mann, bassoonist Denise Turner, oboist Rebecca Ray, French hornist Erica Otero, timpanist John O’Neal, violinist Williams and others. Heuser grasped first-chair hands all around and asked the entire orchestra to revel in the sound of audience appreciation.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theater Critics Association.