I wrote this review of the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra for The Columns (Fairmont State’s student-run newspaper.) I figured I owed something to my
vast legions of reader s.
This is the ‘official director’s cut’ of the story that can be found in the November issue of The Columns.
Fairmont State students and Fairmont citizens alike are privileged with a great opportunity every fall when the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra comes to campus. This time, the yearly event took place on Thursday, October 14 at 7:30 pm and was held in the usual spot, Colebank Gymnasium. Conductor Grant Cooper and his merry myriad of music makers were in great spirits as always and were appended by Ukrainian-born solo pianist Valentina Lisitsa. However, she only joined with the orchestra for one of the two pieces on the bill for the evening.
After President Krepel gave a warm welcome for the even and made a rousing speech about supporting the arts, Cooper took his place on the bandstand and brought the opening of the first piece, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68 (which Ludwig himself nicknamed the “Pastoral Symphony”). I heard someone near me make the statement that this is the only Beethoven piece used in the Disney film “Fantasia”, which is true. With visions of cupids, fauns, and controversial naked centaurs in mind, the audience prepared themselves for what might be the most boring of Beethoven’s nine symphonies.
The symphony is programmatic, which means that it is based on an actual storyline. This one is about how Beethoven liked to walk through the forests outside of Vienna when we was a younger man, so we can expect quite a few of nature’s sounds disguised as musical ideas. The first movement, Awakening of cheerful feelings on arriving in the country, contains long sections of repeated eight-note motifs, most likely signifying varying types of bird flitting around the treetops of Vienna’s most beautiful forests. The second movement brings multitudes of lacy trills in the flutes, piccolos and violins, showing the delicate babbling of the movement’s namesake brook. The last three movements come in one large chunk, first with a dance of happy country which is then rained on by what may be the most terrify thunderstorm of the classical period. Finally, a song from the shepherds to show their ‘cheerful and thankful feelings following the storm.’
English composer Antony Hopkins has been quoted as having said that the coda of the fifth movement is “arguably the finest music of the whole symphony.” Honestly, compared to the rest of the symphony, the coda just a little reassurance that end is in sight. Of course, being that Beethoven is somewhat of a king of long codas, we were treated to one of his longest before the final cadence rang, and with those final chords, the (amazingly boring) first half of the concert was gone.
Now, while it is very hard for me to speech so disrespectfully of Beethoven’s tremendous symphony, it is much easier to sing the praises of the brave men and women who played it. All 77 musicians were in top form for the daunting task of the evening. Each one rose to the challenge of playing some of the most revered music that has ever been written, including what may be the shortest piccolo solo in all of Beethoven’s musical works. Conductor Grant Cooper showed Fairmont his signature brand of conducting, one that is fluid, animated, and expressive. With his expansive arm gestures and facial contortions, Cooper does more than play the part of the metronome. He throws out the idea of being a tin wind-up robot and becomes a larger-than-life spectacle that is a pleasure to watch. All in all, it was a performance that would make Alex DeLarge extremely proud.
After the brief intermission, the audience was introduced to the guest soloist for the evening. Valentina Lisitsa took her seat on the bench of the grand piano and prepared herself for half an hour of virtuosic playing. Sergei Prokofiev was a piano virtuoso himself, and his skill lives on in his Concerto for Piano No. 3 in C major, Op. 26. After a brief minute of flowing, legato introduction, the main theme and corresponding wall of sound blasts forth from the keys of the piano. Such power from a piano probably has not been heard since the last time Rachmaninoff played Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Either way, Lisitsa precisely banged the hell out of every note that Sergei wrote with the resulting sound being so angular and sweet that the audience snapped out of their malaise of indifference that Beethoven so effectively spread through the crowd.
The first movement alone was enough to make the audience want to break protocol and clap between movements, but the crowd sat still, too busy wiping the tears from their eyes and the poop from their pants too even think about standing and applauding. The second movement was a much slower one, being made of one theme and many variations. This movement was rather cacophonous and showed a tremendous Russian influence, which is somewhat of a given considering that Prokofiev was born in what was then called the Russian Empire. Lisitsa continued slamming the piano keys at breakneck speed with the precision of a machine, but more much soul. The final movement was quite a thick, brooding return to the kinds of chromatic melodies and disjointed harmonies that the listener was blessed in the first movement. Lisitsa sat at the piano and smiled widely as the piece drew to a close, showing that she was as pleased with her performance as everyone else in the venue was.
After a few minutes of uproarious applause, Lisitsa returned to the bench, saying she would play a quick solo piece as an added bonus for the crowd. From memory (As was the rest of the show), she played one of Chopin’s beautiful etudes flawlessly, a feat that brought more applause. Being so thrilled with the audience’s reaction, she graced the crowd with one last solo. This time, it was Chopin’s so-called “Minute Waltz.” Lisitsa proceeded to show the audience how that piece got that name, but at the tempo that she played it, the waltz probably only lasted 50 seconds.