Ursula Oppens was the guest piano soloist.
The Youngstown Symphony presented an excellent program Saturday night at Powers Auditorium.
The evening's high point was a fine performance of the Berlioz "Fantastic Symphony." The performance was intelligent, well-paced, expressive and virtuosic.
The "Fantastic Symphony" is one of those rare musical monuments that seem to spring into being almost spontaneously without significantly relevant predecessors. The talented 26-year-old composer, infatuated with a great Shakespearean actress, took it upon himself to write a symphony to her that ushered in the era of program music. A young musician falls into a stupor after taking opium -- a scenario that seems presciently to evoke the 1960s. The movements follow his drug-induced visions.
From start to finish
The symphony's performance was exemplary throughout. Horns and first violins were excellent in the first movement opening, as were the oboe and flute solos. The ball movement, a waltz, was equally fine with lovely woodwind chords punctuating the beat, and helping to set up the interesting irregular rhythms. Director Isaiah Jackson resolutely pushed the movement speedily to its close, much like an opera overture ending.
The "Scene in the Country" begins with a wonderfully pastoral English horn solo answered by an offstage oboe. This depicts two shepherds. Their rustic musings are interrupted by the beloved theme that keeps reappearing throughout the piece. The first shepherd resumes, accompanied by the sound of rumbling distant thunder to close the movement. All this was beautifully depicted by the orchestra.
Jackson closed the fanciful symphony especially effectively. The wildly brilliant "March to the Scaffold," in which the protagonist dreams he has murdered his beloved and is executed, must never flag in its power. Here Jackson maintained the energy, supported by fabulous bassoon playing, and wonderful growling trombones, tubas and timpani.
The "Witches Sabbath" was equally atmospheric, with its mad clarinet solo and subsequent woodwind textures replete with grace notes, offset by the low-range "Dies Irae" theme featuring the darkly powerful tubas, bassoons, horns and trombones.
This was a truly exceptional performance. All sections were outstanding, though the strings, undermanned as usual, sometimes struggled victoriously to be heard.
The concert also included Manuel De Falla's "Nights in the Gardens of Spain," an early 20th-century chestnut. The gifted Ursula Oppens was piano soloist. The piano's interweaving with first-movement orchestral lines set the tone for the entire piece. Oppens and the orchestra were rhythmically very steady, yet expressive in their performance. The second movement, "Distant Dance," led directly to the third. The latter had genuine tempo flexibility as it portrayed the gardens in the Cordoba Mountains.
Oppens provided a wonderful encore with Debussy's "Reflections in the Water." Again, her rhythmic execution was remarkably steady, and her interpretation, outstanding.