Last weekend, after weeks of national discord in the news, the San Juan Symphony gave us a present – a night of profound and powerful music.
Conductor Thomas Heuser and company launched the 2018-19 season in the Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College by performing works by Glinka, Weber, Liszt and Sibelius.
Most important, our regional orchestra reminded us that great music can restore the social fabric of a community.
Heuser started on a note of high energy with Glinka’s “Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla.” What better way to establish an evening of contrasts leading to full-throttle rejoicing than this little seven-minute gem? Furious violins alternated with lively brass marches to set a high bar and a high pulse.
Contrasting an operatic excursion with chamber ensemble elegance, the orchestra welcomed bassoonist Denise Turner to perform Weber’s 1813 Andante and Rondo Ongarese, Op. 35. Chances are, few in the audience had ever heard Weber’s concerto salted with Hungarian melodies. Turner, who also performs with Opera Southwest, the New Mexico Philharmonic and chamber groups throughout the region, leaned into the music, easily managed considerable tempo changes and mastered a fast and incredibly virtuosic conclusion.
With fireworks still in the air, Heuser led the orchestra in Franz Liszt’s stormy Hungarian Rhapsody No.2, the most popular in a series of 19 begun in 1846. Emblematic of the 19th-century craze to incorporate folk music, particularly gypsy tunes, into classical music, the composer’s own Hungarian heritage made him the perfect candidate to capitalize on a wave of national enthusiasm.
Part of the Liszt appeal, then and now, stems from seismic contrasts. Heuser and company gave the deadly-serious opening bars a darkness and despair that had palpable weight. When clarinetist Lori Lovato elegantly spun the first of three solos, she introduced filigreed lightness. Similar contrasts piled up as the orchestra accelerated almost like a runaway train. But Heuser confidently kept the smoking musical locomotive on the rails. At one point, excitement ran so high, a nearby audience member audibly yelped during a full stop. Then Heuser drove directly into the station unleashing a big, explosive finish.
After intermission, everyone settled in for Sibelius’ Second Symphony, an immense work whose rugged solidity is balanced by intense darkness, agitation and a soaring, confident hymn.
As a Finn-American, I have a particular affinity to Sibelius’ music. Composed in 1901-02, the Second is the most popular of the composer’s seven great symphonies. At the premiere on March 8, 1902, the conductor linked it to Finland’s struggle to free itself from Russian domination. Sibelius denied any such nationalistic yearning as the impetus for the work, repeating his argument: “Music begins where words cease.”
But Finns forever afterward have put the Second next to Sibelius’ brooding and heroic hymn, Finlandia, as expressive emblems of a people seeking freedom from tyranny. It is the closest musical equivalent of courage against terrible odds that I have ever heard.
Aware of my cultural bias, I listened as the orchestra navigated through Sibelius’ complex journey – through darkness, despair, brief respites, agitation, then more darkness. At last, the great hymn in the Finale broke through in broad shafts of light, and a brass fanfare signaled the inevitable, hard-won, triumphant conclusion.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.