Review: Modesto Symphony offers up surprise

If you attended the Modesto Symphony this weekend with the impression that all composers of classical music are long dead, then you were among those who got the surprise of their lives when composer Philip Sawyers walked onstage, very much alive, to introduce his new symphony.

Composed in 2008 on commission from the Sydenham International Music Festival in England, Sawyers’ Symphony No. 2 is a single movement work filled with a generous mix of passionate drama, tender lyricism, and striking dissonance. The composer indicated that the symphony does not attempt to establish a key, but still borrows enough of the language of tonality for the music to feel approachable.

In addition, Sawyers uses time-tested developmental techniques to give the piece structure and momentum. For me, that means there has to be, at the minimum, something to hang onto rhythmically (a discernable pulse for starters), and melodically or motivically (a tune or figure that we can recognize when it comes again). Having listened to a lot of new music that doesn’t do those things, I found the Sawyers piece gives us rhythmic energy and enough tunefulness to succeed in being intelligible and attractive, if just a bit long on a first listening. The orchestra gave this piece its second-ever performance, and did so compellingly thanks not least to David Lockington’s incisive command of the score.

Paired with the new symphony on the first half was the gentle and appealing “Le Tombeau de Couperin” by Ravel. Originally a six-movement work for piano, “Le Tombeau” was colorfully orchestrated by the composer in 1919 into a suite of four movements. The orchestration includes famously difficult wind solos, most notably for the oboe part, which was gracefully and musically rendered by principal oboe Denis Harper. The strings often accompanied with a lovely shimmering sound, while Harper provided both agile finger work (as in the undulating figure in the Prelude), and long-breathed, sustained melody, sometimes in a very high register (as in the Menuet). Harper’s colleagues in the wind section were equal to their tasks as well, often providing the piece with the key ingredients for its dancing lilt, sweeping line, or keening melancholy.

The second half of the program featured the monumental Concerto No. 1 in D minor by Johannes Brahms performed by soloist Norman Krieger. As this is a piece I have performed myself, I have invested a good deal of thought about how it should be interpreted. I was hopeful that my own work with the piece would not set me up for disappointment. I needn’t have worried—I wouldn’t have played a single phrase differently. Every aspect of Mr. Krieger’s performance reflected a well-considered balance between high-minded nobility and deeply-felt passion, solistic bravura and chamber-like partnership. Besides being spot-on technically throughout the difficult octave trills of the first movement and the brilliant scalar passages of the finale, Krieger played with an ample measure of sincerity that was most evident in the softest passages of the Adagio, a movement which is a miracle of spirituality and quiet joy. Here he brought the focus of the listener down to the quality of each individual note, and suspended time and reality in the process. The orchestra succeeded most convincingly in the dramatic passages, and provided the performance with the truly symphonic character called for in this piece. Apart from a few bobbled entrances in sensitive moments such as the final wind chord of the second movement, the more subtle aspects of the orchestra part were generally successful as well.

Stephen Thomas is a professor of music at California State University, Stanislaus, in Turlock.

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