Pulling Off a Difficult Juggling Act: The Quad City Symphony, March 31 at the Adler Theatre Print
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Frederick Morden   
Tuesday, 10 April 2012 07:20

The finale of the Quad City Symphony’s Masterworks season was a difficult juggling act requiring the preparation of contemporary, impressionistic, Classical, and Romantic musical languages while collaborating with and attending to the artistic needs of a composer, a piano soloist, and three sopranos.

The orchestra fundamentally pulled it off, although it sounded like one more rehearsal for the large, complicated program would have helped the symphony master the nuances of each piece.

The radiantly orchestrated, thematically complex, musically luxurious centerpiece of the concert was a suite from Richard Strauss’ comic opera Der Rosenkavalier that featured musical segments performed by the orchestra and three guest vocalists singing the “Trio” and “Duet” from Act III.

Performing the role of the noble, self-sacrificing Marschallin, dramatic soprano Kara Shay Thomson sang with pathos, dynamic brilliance, and a sumptuous, mature voice that appropriately dominated the sound of the vocal trio. She prowled through her sinuous melodic lines, and her unrelenting vocal strength cut through the seemingly impermeable sound of the 85-member orchestra.

Lyric soprano Sarah Shafer sang the teenage ingénue Sophie with buoyancy and the impetuous passion of young love with flashes of dramatic edge and brilliance. In the “pants role” – a female singing a male part – of the gallant Octavian, mezzo-soprano Abigail Nims sounded robust and confident, an effective contrast to Sophie.

From the heroic-sounding opening fanfare in the horns to the delicate “Rose motif” in the celesta, high-string tremolos, and two harps, the symphony was effusive in virtuosic solo moments of the suite and worked hard to keep Strauss’ complex orchestration under dynamic control with its accompaniments of the vocals. In “Ochs’s Waltz,” the musical spotlight turned toward the violins with their string glissandos, sweet melodic sequences, stylized rhythm, compelling lightness of tone, and changes of tempo – some marked in the score, some not – that squeezed every drop of musical melodrama out of each phrase. The accompanying parts in the horns, percussion, and lower strings infused the Vienna-style music with its iconic Wiener-Walzer kick beat, and then gave way to the singers when they entered.

But while the music was rapturously well-performed, the staging of the singers was problematic. Their diagonal placement visually blocked two of them from some audience locations and projected their voices into a corner. Thomson was always heard, but Shafer and Nims were covered by the thick timbre of Strauss’ dense musical score until they moved back next to Conductor Mark Russell Smith and sang directly to the audience.

It would have been helpful if the program had included an English translation of the German libretto to illuminate the literary context of the music, specifically Thomson’s dramatic, bittersweet exit, the reason Shafer and Nims remained on-stage, and the contrasting personalities of their characters.

In Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20, guest pianist Lydia Artymiw performed the concisely structured themes with elegant grace, creating a continuous flow of dynamic energy through the melodic lines and rigorous articulations in the contrasting episodic sections.

She prioritized the hierarchy of musical layers by varying finger weight on the keys, shaping long melodic arcs with her right hand while quietly playing undulating accompaniments of contrasting rhythms and shapes in her left. Even more absorbing was the timbre of her quiet moments, like cotton balls bumping the strings instead of hammers hitting them – a tonal transparency rarely heard from the symphony’s Steinway concert grand piano. In her hands, the solo cadenzas – written by Beethoven for his own performances of the concerto – were a clearly defined juxtaposition of divergent musical styles.

However, the musical dialogue between the soloist and orchestra seemed distant. Their melodic exchanges didn’t melt into long, cohesive phrases. It was like they were dancing separately and not together, without feeling each other’s musical movements. Variations in rhythm often reflected the technical challenges of playing the music instead of an interpretive decision in the treatment of the phrases. For example, the orchestra appropriately stretched out the second theme, but it never regained the “allegro” tempo that drove the first movement. As a result, the musical intensity that is so essential to this rare D-minor concerto – with its foreshadowing of the coming Romantic period – was lost. This tendency to fall back into a comfortable “groove” tempo instead of applying rhythmic pressure took the dazzle out of the refreshing D-major ending.

In the premiere of William Campbell’s Coyote Dances, the symphony’s invigorating performance enhanced the carefully orchestrated score of compound rhythms and Copland-like tonality. The portrayal of a Native American myth sounded like clouds of fairy dust and aluminum confetti, a musical party of joyful ideas under the control of an experienced, disciplined composer. The orchestra easily evoked images of Coyote dashing across the nighttime sky and clearly presented Campbell’s sophisticated use of symphonic form, fresh changes of key, and contrasting themes. The dissonant brass clusters of sound were so well-balanced and in-tune that they were fabric-like, especially when doubled with the lower strings. Imperfections with missed notes and imbalances, as well as intonation problems in the woodwinds, were minor and didn’t mar the overall effect of the musical story.

The orchestra also performed Manuel de Falla’s impressionistic Suite No. 2 from his ballet score The Three-Cornered Hat. The first two movements were emphatic declarations of Moorish music, with rough string playing and a stunning horn solo opening of “The Miller’s Dance.” In the third movement, the second violins growled with repeated down-bows near the bridge as designated brass players surprised the audience, playing castanet rolls near the end.

In the slow sections, the music was languidly lyrical instead of internally intense, with only infrequent glimpses of the brash, edgy sound that permeates Andalusian flamenco style.

Frederick Morden is a retired orchestra-music director, conductor, composer, arranger, educator, and writer who has served on the executive board of the Conductors Guild. He can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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