Heavy clouds, the threat of rain, and a lightning bolt or two. Uncertain weather provided the perfect overture for a program consisting of two big Romantic era works Sunday night in the Community Concert Hall.
Conductor Guillermo Figue-roa led the Festival Orchestra in a spellbinding program of Chopins Concerto for Piano, No. 1 and Sibelius Symphony No. 2. That the audience sat mesmerized throughout the two hour program is a tribute to the power of the music and the performance.
For 13 years festival audiences have warmed to pianist Aviram Reichert. Chosen more than a decade ago by festival founder and original conductor Mischa Semanitzky from finalists at a Van Cliburn competition, Reichert has brought many great works to the festival stage. For a Chopin Year tribute (2010 is the 200th anniversary of the Polish composers birth), Reichert chose to perform the first concerto, written when Chopin was only 19. The concerto is a virtuosic showpiece for any pianist, and Reichert demonstrated that he has continued to capitalize on his immense skill. The first movement in particular is heavily arpeggiated, rapid articulation of chord structures up and down the keyboard, and requires a high level of technique.
As Reichert continues to dazzle audiences with his prowess, he also has deepened in expressive content. That was most clearly evident in the second movement, the Romanze. Before the piano entered in lyrical quietude, muted strings had created an atmosphere of serene calm. Reichert then merged into a beautiful internal duet with bassoonist Laura Leisring. Together, they underscored the movements air of yearning tinged with melancholy. That, too, can be a show stopper, but of a different kind.
In contrast and with splintering speed, Reichert and the orchestra entered the final dance-like Rondo with high spirits. Throughout, Conductor Figueroa led the orchestra with an easy flexibility, shaping phrases and shifting tempi as if the musicians had a whole summer of rehearsals.
The second half of the program was dedicated to Symphony No. 2 by Finlands great composer, Jean Sibelius. Written at the turn of the last century, its shards of sunlight and shadow coalesce into one of the most moving statements of musical grandeur. To this day, nothing prepares you for its majesty, and the festival orchestra plumbed all of its strength. In fact, Figueroa and the orchestra created an atmosphere of intensity and suspense that lasted for almost an hour.
Known for its tradition-breaking structure and over-arching splendor, the work is a study of how brief, seemingly unrelated musical motifs can surface out of apparent chaos into a clear harmonic structure. Fragments appear, disappear, and finally culminate in one of the most remarkable musical climaxes in the history of sound.
From the seemingly innocent opening in the strings to the haunting, even menacing interruption of a horn choir, Figueroa never let the tension subside. He maximized contrasts throughout from barely audible double bass rumblings to blaring brass announcements, from strings so muted they almost disappeared to tubist Richard Whites boldly repeated half-step footprints on the base of the final ascent up the mountain.
Along the way, fragments flickered through the composers sonic web in various solo voices, in particular bassoonist Leisring, flutist Jean Larson Garver, trumpeter Stephen Weger, hornist Greg Hustis, and oboist Erin Hannigan. In the andante, it was Hannigans mesmerizing melody that pierced the dark ice. It famously begins with nine repeated B-flats and weaves into the orchestral texture -- so evocative of Sibeliuss musical notion of growth and decay that underpins the entire work.
One of the pleasures of the concert hall is to be visually and audibly aware of something in particular. Symphony No. 2 is scored for only one percussion instrument. Without the persistent presence of the timpani, ably played by John Pennington, the work would lack its sense of ineffability. In what must be the longest, most carefully calibrated crescendo in musical literature, the final movements spectacular crest is approached by a subtle and relentless timpani roll expertly controlled and explosively rendered by Pennington.
Its my belief that people hunger for a glimpse of grandeur. Its why many of us live in the mountains. Musical grandeur was ours for a moment Sunday night.
Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic. Reach her at email@example.com.