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Salisbury Symphony concert: a deLIGHTful experience

The Salisbury Symphony’s Oct. 24 concert was well-attended and much-lauded.
This is as much a compliment for the Salisbury audience as for the symphony, since the program promised no well-known “warhorses” or beloved orchestral favorites as a means of boosting tickets sales.
What it did offer was not just one, but two North Carolina premieres of contemporary works by living composers ó one of whom traveled all the way from Buffalo, N.Y., to attend.
Music director David Hagy has long exhibited his flair for planning performances around a theme. The concert title, “Chasing Light,” was generated by the work of that same title written by Joseph Schwantner, the current Ford Made in America composer.
This is the second time Salisbury Symphony has participated in the Ford Made in America initiative, a unique program where community orchestras band together to commission a new orchestra work.
Leading up to the Schwantner piece, all of the other works on the program musically illustrated “light.”
The concert opened with an early Haydn work, his Symphony 7, called “Noon,” composed 1761. (Haydn composed this symphony as part of a trilogy, the previous symphony representing morning, and the third portraying evening).
In Haydn’s time, orchestras were smaller and composers were limited to a much more restrictive set of rules and instrument techniques. Plus the classical period in music was not noted for the programmatic tone painting that would later be a hallmark of the ensuing Romantic period.
Yet Haydn managed to be a master of music illustration. In the “noon” symphony, the light comes shining through in the form of a pervasive major tonality, open chord spacings and glimmering technique.
The symphony employed reduced forces to approximate the characteristics and size of a mid-18th century orchestra. The Haydn work, although a symphony, has concerto-like characteristics, featuring solos by the principals of each string section, all of whom used their moments to shine to full effect. Even the principal bass had a rare solo opportunity in the minuet movement.
The only thing that kept the Haydn performance from being truly exquisite was the lack of an actual harpsichord. The digital instrument used as stand-in was unable to masquerade effectively, its electronic character evident between the exposed winds and behind the smaller string sections.
The Salisbury Symphony has chosen to highlight its own players as featured soloists this season rather than bringing in guest soloists. This decision may have been economically motivated because of the current recession, but if the featured soloist on Oct. 24 heralds things to come, audiences will not suffer. In fact, they will have a chance to better discover treasures already regularly on the Salisbury stage.
Eileen Young, principal clarinetist with Salisbury Symphony, was really put to the test as featured soloist for Persis Vehar’s “City of Light.” And Young passed with flying colors.
She navigated the full extent of the clarinet’s range, and sailed confidently and unperturbed through each challenge ó glissandi, multiphonics, bent pitches, you name it.
“City of Light” refers to Vehar’s current city of residence, Buffalo. Historically, the close proximity of Niagra Falls enabled it to be the first city to generate electric homelighting for it’s citizens.
Vehar’s score includes stage lighting suggestions, so the orchestra was bathed in different hues during the performance of the work. While this enhanced the experience, it wasn’t necessary in order to engage the audience as images sprang to life through the music, from swirling water to illumination.
Like electrical circuitry, motives initiated by Young’s clarinet traveled with alacrity across sections of the orchestra. Since players would often finish motives and phrases begun by others, not only did they need to concentrate on getting their own part right, they had to have a heightened awareness of everything else going on around them, to make all the connections fit smoothly.
The piece is complex, and the orchestra is to be commended for its sterling performance given the limited amount of rehearsal time.
Vehar traveled to Salisbury to be on hand for the performance, and to graciously accept the appreciation shown by the audience.
During the intermission that followed City of Light, some people were heard to remark that while they didn’t normally care much for contemporary music, they found the Vehar work fascinating.
Neilsen’s Helios overture opened the second half of the program, the orchestra’s French horns leading the way, as the music capably carried Helios’ chariot from sunrise to sunset.
Schwantner’s aptly named “Chasing Light…” captured listener’s attention like a jolt of lightning, and the work was a laser show for the ears. Movements and moods moved seamlessly one to the next. Schwantner’s great command of a huge orchestral palette demonstrated why he is considered one of the foremost composers writing in the U.S. today, and why he was selected as the current Ford Made in America composer.
After the orchestra received a well-deserved standing ovation, Hagy returned to the stage and announced an encore. An audible sigh of delight came from the audience when he announced they would play Debussy’s “Clair de lune.”
In spite of the outstanding performances, one gentleman was still not persuaded to abandon his distaste for contemporary music. He said when the Debussy was performed, he felt like a kid being handed a lollipop after a visit to the doctor.
But judging by the overall enthusiasm, for most attendees the Debussy was the icing on the cake.
When the audience departed, instead of the usual reception, they found cans of Cheerwine and Apple Uglies waiting for them in the lobby. Yet another surprise in an unusual evening.

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