On Saturday, a popular violin concerto warmed the hearth of the San Juan Symphony’s first concert of the season. After a spare, chilly opening of a rarely performed work by Charles Ives, Music Director Arthur Post demonstrated how flexible his orchestra has become. Concluding with an expansive reading of Beethoven’s Symphony No.3, Post and his musicians built a fire that may sustain us musically through another winter.
A short, musical mystery opened the concert. “The Unanswered Question,” a wee, five-minute symbolic drama, may be the most avant-garde piece we’ll hear all season.
On a spare stage with only four musicians, Conductor Post stood in a spotlight and barely signaled his otherwise offstage orchestra. Barely audible, muted strings provided a shiver of sound which a solo trumpet pierced seven times. Soloist Marc Reed, also offstage, played varying angular lines which presumably functioned as the question of the title. The woodwinds responded with brief but increasing musical confusion. After the final trumpet statement, “The Unanswered Question” hung in the air.
Fortunately, Conductor Post had prepared the audience for this highly conceptual work. Is it a musical equivalent of a philosophical inquiry? If so, as Post intimated, Ives crafted an expression of “The Perennial Question of Existence.” It worked for me, and more important, the music that followed answered Ives’s question. Both the Bruch and the Beethoven gave amplitude to the human condition.
Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No.1, in G minor, filled the concert hall with what the Romantics did best – express intense feeling. From the lyrical sweetness and sadness of the prelude to the robust vitality of the final movement, the orchestra and soloist’s performance of Bruch’s concerto expanded emotional experience. No wonder this work is the most popular of the three violin concerti Bruch composed.
Guest soloist Odin Rathnam bought out all the contrasts, playing with lyrical sweetness, vigor and virtuosity. In the opening movement, Rathnam confidently unspooled each of the thematic lines leading the orchestra effortlessly into the adagio. A beautiful cadenza linked first to second movement without a break. At the end of the adagio, Post took an extended pause which may have confused the audience as flutters of applause filled the air. Then orchestra and soloist launched into the festive third movement. The brilliant dance-like theme shimmered as Rathnam easily tossed off long double-stop passages, playing two strings simultaneously, underscoring the gypsy-like quality to the music. With its lively coda, the concerto came to an end and immediate acknowledgement by a standing audience.
After intermission, the longest work on the program, Beethoven’s Third Symphony, concluded the concert. Almost unnoticed, Rathnam slipped into the last chair of the second violin section and joined the orchestra for the performance. Such a gesture is an indication of a soloist’s love of music and a compliment to the ensemble and its conductor.
Making the case for Beethoven’s maverick status, Post introduced the work with a few comments about the composer’s initial dedication to Napoleon, later rescinded, and Beethoven’s awareness of his increasing deafness. Post read from the Heiligenstadt Testament, a letter written to the composer’s brothers in 1802 but kept secret until after death. Post stressed the isolation and distress of a young musician aware of his life-changing condition.
The letter set the stage for a performance at once expansive and lyrical. Post took his time in each of the four movements, especially the dramatic funeral marches of the second. Familiar to many, the work has a gravity that only great classical music seems to possess. When the orchestra brought the symphony to its triumphant ending, the title, “Eroica,” had been fully expressed.
Experimental, engaging, and profound, Saturday’s concert turned out to be an auspicious beginning for another season.
email@example.com. Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic.