February 23rd was the date the Albany Symphony Orchestra chose to celebrate Black History Month. This year, the orchestra remained at home at the Albany Municipal Auditorium.
It seems a kind of mystery that its usual excursion to Mt. Zion Baptist Church was not chosen. No explanation seems available. For those of us who have witnessed the past six celebrations there, honesty impels us to admit of their success and enjoyment by a splendid cross-section of the Albany/Dougherty community. Mt. Zion’s big, shiny new edifice, sanctuary or activities space could have served both orchestra and listeners well. It would be a special treat indeed when or if the ASO ever returns to this grand venue, now enhanced by a new magnificent and imaginative architectural inner space.
The program featured Albany State University’s violin virtuoso and artist-in-residence Gareth Johnson playing the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major, Op. 35 by Piotr (Peter) Ilych Tchaikovsky (1840-93). There is an interesting connection between this work and Albany in that upon completing the work Tchaikovsky sent it to Leopold Auer, chairman of the violin department at the St. Petersburg (Russia) Conservatory of Music who deemed it unplayable and returned it to the composer. Auer was the teacher of Woltan Zoellner who for many years ran a piano sales business in Albany and was the orchestra’s first concertmaster in it’s early years, thus the connection. On the program the Concerto was sandwiched between Richard Wagner’s Overture from the Opera Die Meistersingers, Jeffrey Mumford’s (1955-) a dance into reflected daylight (2012) and all four movements of Ottorono Resphigi’s The Pines of Rome.
Die Meistersinger exhibited a different sounding orchestra and new personnel. Wagner’s orchestration came through with a new power, especially in the wind instrument. Here, Maestro Claire Fox Hillard simply let them play the music as they felt it without overcoming the strings. One could hear through the orchestra, so to speak, that is to say through the instrumentation. One could wonder: “Is this is how orchestras sounded in Wagner’s day? If so, perhaps we heard a more authentic playing of this music.
In the Tchaikovsky violin concerto young Gareth Johnson was in fine company with the likes of such virtuosos as Milstein, Pearlman, Stein, et. al., One cannot but think that he has listened and imbibed the interpretative sense of these and perhaps several other masters of this work. They’ve all no doubt played it, especially since it is the only one that the composer wrote, or that is extant. One is left to wonder if any ards of the masters mentioned above, or others, for that matter, played it any better than did Gareth whose surety in all aspects of the concerto left little doubt about his mastery of it that Auer deemed “unplayable.”
Auer was active as a teacher between circa 1864 and 1929. We know that virtuosic standards during this period generally, lagged somewhat behind that which we experience today. Masters like Nicolo Paganini (1782?-1840), Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908) and Georges Enesco (1881-1955) with their genius abilities raised performance standards to new heights. Of course later violinists were forced to meet them. Johnson does this with room to spare. From his early days as a Sphinx competition award winner His growth as an artist has consistently developed. His playing of this demanding Tchaikovsky concerto was visually and aurally spectacular.
The post-intermission short music by African-American composer Jeffrey Mumford was different from all other music on this program with its dissonances, rhythmic verve and deft orchestration. Its placement on the program as the beginning of the second half was an intelligent decision in that its aural challenging expressive mien upon first hearing was subtly relieved by the final work: The Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936).
Usually only one or the other of the four descriptions is played as a single tone poem. Hillard allowed us to hear all four of them. Hearing them as single pieces of music gave the impression — at least to this hearer — that they were not really different in contrast. Hearing all four together, any discerning listener would at least gradually determine that they are really four different pieces held together by the composer’s unique style, yet differentiated by the breath of his ability to give each of the “Pines” its unique character, to wit: “The Pines of the Villa Borghese” “….Near a Catacomb”... "of the Janiculum Hills)” ... "of the Appian Way.” In the “Janiculum” Respighi uses the actual sound of a Nightingale. It was recorded on tape (or record) and played at the appropriate time indicated in the score — an example of musical onomatopoeia. I’ve not been able to identify the Nightingale’s call. We do know that composers seem to favor what they regard as the sublime voice of this immortalized creature.
Despite the geographic disappointment anent the orchestra's annual trip into south Albany already mentioned, It was a fine continuation of a promising full season.
James Marquis is emeritus professor of music, retired, at Albany State University.