Thursday, February 20, 2014

Symphony Surprises

On Monday evening, I returned to my alma mater to hear the University of Memphis Symphony Orchestra present its first concert of the semester. While many of the faces on stage have changed, I was extremely impressed with the quality of music coming from the stage.

When I looked at the program upon taking my seat, I didn't have high hopes. The performance featured winners of the 2013 Soloist Competition. There have been some wonderful winners in the past; my problem was with the instruments listed.  Winners played clarinet, cello, and EUPHONIUM! Really? I was expecting a night that I simply had to get through without falling asleep.

The opening piece, Concert Fantasia on Motives from Rigoletto by Luigi Bassi, was lively and well played. I was mesmerized by the student's technique; I was distracted by my dread of the next piece on the program. (Hey! I'm just being honest!) When John Stevens' Euphonium Concerto (2004) began, I was delighted to realize just how wrong my preconceived ideas had been. The first movement of the concerto was an adventure in sound that delighted. Soloist Geoff Durbin displayed absolute control of the instrument and masterfully colored sounds.

The highlight of the concert, however, was Schelomo by Ernest Bloch. The piece for cello and orchestra is described as a Hebraic Rhapsody, inspired by the writings of Solomon in the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes. Cellist Nathan Cottrell's playing grabbed my ears and refused to let go. His passionate performance conveyed a sense of the questioning and searching of the Hebrew people. I was reminded of how much I have enjoyed listening to Bloch's music and again made a mental note to check out more of this composer's repertoire.

One of the things I love most about music is its ability to surprise and invigorate listeners despite their expectations. That's the mark of great music and powerful performances.