Friday’s season-opening program of the Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra was typical of the innovative and thematic programming that has characterized Maestra Elizabeth Schulze’s tenure with the FSO.
Drawn entirely from the French repertoire of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, works by Debussy, Ravel, and Franck offered a glimpse at the diversity and amazing creativity that characterizes that period in classical music history.
Eschewing the usual “opening night” pattern of a dramatic overture followed by a concerto and symphonic work from the standard repertoire, Schulze chose to open the program with the “Prelude to the Afternoon of Faun,” a landmark work by Claude Debussy that introduced the world to many of the compositional techniques that would be important in the development of classical music during the 20th century.
Maurice Ravel’s G Major Piano Concerto is an example of the cross fertilization of musical styles and techniques, a result of the composer’s fascination with the jazz idioms of America, combined with his own Gallic and Basque musical influences.
Finally, the single symphony of organist-composer Cesar Franck is a fine but less often performed example of late 19th century romanticism, with a distinctive individualism cast in the traditional symphonic forms passed on from the giants of that era, Brahms and Beethoven.
With the exception of some intonation and tuning issues in the upper strings and a few uncharacteristic woodwind glitches, the orchestra performed admirably in this opening concert and was most effective in the richly orchestrated Debussy piece and in the final movement of the Franck symphony. As always, Schulze’s conducting was energetic and demonstrated a strong empathy for this repertoire, with which she appears to have a particular affinity.
Guest pianist Michael Brown, despite a diminutive and retiring presence, displayed power and full control in performance of the demanding Ravel concerto, with its percussive and rhythmically complex passages in the two outer movements. The centerpiece of the concerto, a languid, meditative, and lengthy discourse in slow triple meter, requires a different manner of control in order to maintain the listener’s attention, and Mr. Brown masterfully achieved this in his sensitive rendition. Ravel’s characteristically skillful orchestration was brilliantly executed by members of the percussion and brass divisions of the orchestra.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this was a concert in which a number of the orchestra’s fine first chair players had ample opportunity to display their musicianship. In the opening ethereal passages of the Debussy Prelude, flautist Jeannette Hirasawa Moore demonstrated her impeccable purity of tone and intonation, qualities that were again demonstrated in other solo passages throughout the evening. She more than deserves her recent promotion to that first chair position in the orchestra.
Jane Hall has long been a member of the orchestra’s wind section, and was given opportunity to demonstrate the unique sonic qualities of her primary instrument, the English Horn, a recent addition to the orchestral sonic palette when Cesar Franck gave it lengthy solo passages in his D minor Symphony. It was good to hear Hall in a solo capacity rather than her usual hidden role within the woodwind section.
There were some new faces in the horn section, and their accuracy and sense of ensemble was notable. Absent from the stage was timpanist Steve Hemphill, who again has presided in that essential position for as long as I can remember. A new face in that post for this concert probably reflects the legion of students he has guided during a long career in the School of Music’s percussion department.
In her introductory remarks FSO Board President Helen Hudgens Ferrell said it all. This opening concert was both a beginning and a conclusion, with Schulze taking up the baton for her ninth and final season as Conductor and Music Director. At the same time, the Orchestra looks ahead to a musically rich and varied season with auditions for four candidates, one of whom will succeed Schulze in that role next year. The audience will invited to participate in that process of selection through ballots made available to season subscribers. We look forward to observing each of the candidates as they prepare and conduct a full concert during the rest of the season.
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