Anthony Princiotti was on the podium Dec. 6 at the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts to conduct the second MasterWorks concert of the 2008-2009 Season. It was a concert that covered music that was created by American-born composers or composers who created works while living in America during the last 75 years. The orchestra is in the midst of a two-year cycle of concerts celebrating their 74th and 75th seasons.
Princiotti is an incredibly gifted conductor. As one audience member said to me, he had the ability to communicate to the orchestra so well that even frequently heard works such as the Copland Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo and Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, A Symphonic Picture sounded fresh and new. Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, the main work of the evening, was so transparent and so carefully articulated by the members of the orchestra under Princiotti's guidance that it held the audience spellbound.
In fact, when works such as the Bartok were programmed even as recently as three years ago, you would have seen a significant portion of the audience, say 5-10 percent, who left the theater at intermission and did not return for the second half. Those days are apparently gone forever, because the tenure of Princiotti and Music Director/Conductor Jaime Laredo has been particularly blessed with fewer orchestral chestnuts and more programming of contemporary 21st century and 20th century music.
Judging from the reaction of the audience, those days are now behind the orchestra. As Princiotti suggested during the preconcert interview, the board had initially been concerned with programming that looked as though it might cause negative fluctuations in ticket sales or in actual attendance. This last concert and the audience reaction to it should demonstrate to all concerned that the days of "safe" programming can be considered to be definitely past.
The opening Copland had an energetic crispness that flowed unceasingly throughout the evening from Princiotti, in which the orchestra reflected back and made for an exciting, clear and refreshing performance.
The Gershwin, orchestrated by Robert Russell Bennett -- Gershwin was learning to orchestrate and had actually done one orchestration before he died so untimely -- was given a very coherent reading, one which highlighted the songs that make up the symphonic picture, a sort of elongated overture. Once again, the orchestra responded perfectly to Princiotti's indications.
The Bartok is not easy listening, even though it was premiered in 1945. However, the orchestra, once again responded to the indicators that Princiotti gave to them and turned in a spectacular performance of the work.worth responding Individual players in the individual sections of the orchestra deserved every recognition that was given to them by Princiotti and seconded by the audience. It was a splendid achievement, establishing a high-water mark that will be difficult to surpass, and not necessarily easy to parallel. Thematic material came through with great clarity, thus simplifying the task of the audience to join with the orchestra in understanding what Bartok was saying in this significant and beautiful composition. To achieve this goal of communicating Bartok's ideas, Princiotti was what the Roman might have called 'primus inter pares' or 'first among equals'...and he was genuinely pleased with the entire evening of music and the instrumentalists, the orchestra, played so well under his guidance.
Don't forget, if you're looking for Christmas presents or holiday gifts in general, the VSO (as well as other musical local organizations) has some recordings available for purchase. Keep this in mind as you make your lists. For certain, the money will go directly to local organizations, and you will be able to enjoy the impact directly.
On Dec. 7, the first Baptist Church on St. Paul Street in Burlington was the scene of an afternoon concert, called Holiday Lights. This admirable chorus, founded by and under the direction of Dr. Dawn Willis, is in its fifth year. It's obviously a well-organize group not only musically but organizationally, which goes a long way to ensuring the stability of the group was musically and otherwise. They were joined by brass, organ and the Northern Bronze Handbell Ensemble.
The selections chosen ran the gamut from Latin texts to a spiritual, and from older literature up to some more recent compositions or arrangements. One of the most enjoyable was Vermont composer Gwyneth Walker's setting of Good Tell It on the Mountain, which had a wonderful feeling of a New Orleans jazz band in the accompaniment above which the singers sang us a very familiar tune. He was a great ending for a wonderful Sunday afternoon concert.
Other highlights of the concert: the Ave Maria by Alan Hovhaness, an underrated composer; Willis's arrangement of Sing We Now of Christmas; Haitian Noel; and What Sweeter Music. It could have done entirely without the Michael Haydn, because it was the least successful performance of the afternoon.
This group also has several recordings that would make excellent holiday gifts.
Briefly Noted: Massenet's opera Tha s will be performed next on the Met in HD. I've seen three of the four, and they give us a look at Opera that is quite different, since they take us onto the stage during a performance (especially Salome). You have a chance to be up close and personal with Ren e Fleming, who sings the title role, and Thomas Hampson, who sings the main male role. We are blessed with the fact that the manager of Cinema 9 has taken the risk of scheduling these performances. If you like opera, this is a unique opportunity to hear performances of less well known operas by composers who are also frequently less well-known and to do so at a bargain basement price. Upcoming there are some warhorses such as Madame Butterfly, as well as some lesser-known works such as Gluck's Orpheus...Saw 'Australia' (a nine-handkerchiefer) and saw a name credited for the score. So what? Besides 'Over the Rainbow' which is everywhere, also Bach's 'Sheep May Safely Graze' is omnipresent (a not-so-subtle joke because the film is about cattle) and the final minutes are devoted to one of the 'Enigma Variations' by Elgar - so what did he compose?
Burlington resident Dan Wolfe observes and critiques the local arts scene for the Times Sentinel. His column appears weekly.