The Central Ohio Symphony opened its 41st season on Oct. 26 with another riveting concert that included three works: Christopher Weait’s “Divertimento for Strings,” Peter Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, and Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2. Maestro Jaime Morales-Matos, now in his 17th year at the podium, continues to be the music director of the orchestra.
In a court of law, jurors are instructed to keep emotions out of their deliberations. That would be impossible to do in the concert hall where unrestrained passion is an integral part of every performance. The evening began with a thunderous and triumphant rendering of the American national anthem. The audience stood, as is customary, and many sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It was followed by a work of Christopher Weait, who served as music director of the Central Ohio Symphony for eleven seasons, from 1988 to 1999, and also was adjunct faculty at Ohio Wesleyan University. Earlier this year, he celebrated his 80th birthday, and Morales-Matos thought it appropriate to honor the accomplished bassoonist, experienced educator, renowned conductor, and emerging composer with a performance of one of his own works.
A native of England, Weait came to the U.S. as a child. After graduating from college in 1961, his career as a bassoonist with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and as a teacher at OSU (1984-2006) took off. It wasn’t until his retirement from teaching and performing in 2006, however, that he found enough time to dedicate himself to composing full-time. A number of his works were performed in recent years, and more are in the pipeline, including orchestral songs, chamber music, and piano pieces. His creative output also includes numerous transcriptions and arrangements. The concert program stated that he has more than 600 creative works to his credit. Weait, who attended both the rehearsal and the concert, may now be an octogenarian, but his creative rigor seems unabated.
“Divertimento for Strings” is an orchestral piece of about 10 minutes in length. The three movements are Allegro, Processional, and Scherzo. The first movement was a perfectly tonal and melodic piece with a happy and bouncy dance rhythm. It could have been written by contemporaries of Haydn or Mozart. In the slow second movement, depicting a religious pilgrimage, emotional fervor began to creep in. The third movement was once again fast and exhibited even more urgency. The scherzo (“joke”) plays a lot with rhythmic variations and culminates in a sudden pizzicato ending. You might say the brief Divertimento, originally called “Suite,” demonstrates a journey through the history of music, from the 18th through the 20th century.
Peter Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 is one of the most beloved works of the entire piano repertoire. Its introductory cadences are probably as famous as the beginning of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. Few composers are as passionate and emotionally gripping as Tchaikovsky. His symphonies and tone poems can give chills and goosebumps to even hardcore listeners of classical music. Israeli-born Dror Biran from the University of Cincinnati was an excellent choice as soloist for this feat of derring-do. The award-winning pianist, who has played under the baton of many conductors, can aggressively hammer away in torrential passages if warranted, but he is also perfectly capable of whispering sweet nothings with exquisite tenderness. Passion and technique, body and mind, muscles and soul are required to do right by the concerto. The work, composed in 1874-75, has three movements: Allegro, Andantino, and Allegro. It is characteristic for Tchaikovsky to oscillate between major and minor keys, depicting the musical battles that are taking place within the concerto. However, the work ends triumphantly in B flat major. It took effort and more than one rehearsal, but in the end conductor Morales-Matos, pianist Biran, and the orchestra were perfectly aligned and delivered an unforgettable rendering of the concerto.
For this reviewer, the performance of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 was the high point of the exciting concert. The Finnish composer is a much more interesting man and artist than many realize. For one thing, he traveled extensively and was familiar and even friends with all the great composers of Europe during his long life (1865-1957), from Wagner and Liszt, Strauβ and Busoni, to Bartok and Shostakovich. He was by no means an isolated outlier and hermit at the Arctic Circle. Reportedly he was also prone to excesses and often struggled with money problems as a result.
The four movements of his symphony are: Allegretto, Andante, Vivacissimo, and Allegro. There is much storm and stress here. Sibelius lays bare his soul, as he stated at one point. The operating word that emerged after listening to the rehearsals and the final performance is “brooding.” This is a dark, Nordic symphony with not much sunshine even though Sibelius drafted it on the placid coast of the Mediterranean Sea in Italy. There are lots of short, ragged tunes, often in a sad minor key. There is much passion in the symphony, but unlike Tchaikovsky’s unfulfilled romantic yearning it is the passion of anguish and agony, pain and suffering. Frequently, primal screams can be heard that the brass section rendered very effectively. Moments of relative peace and serenity are brief and fleeting before demonic forces take over once again. Much of the turmoil and turbulence was no doubt personal and psychological in nature, but the decade before World War I (1914-18) was also one of torturous political, military, and economic tensions in Europe. Nationalistic skirmishes flared up constantly, eventually erupting in full-fledged global warfare and the Russian Revolution. It is not wrong to see Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 in this context. We, too, live in challenging times, which might help explain the renewed relevance of Jean Sibelius. Conductor Morales-Matos did an admirable job when he refused to sand down the many rough and sharp edges of this unsettling symphony. Instead, he made sure the twists and turns were stark, distinct, and pronounced.
The Symphony’s next concert is Sunday, Dec. 15, when it will present two identical holiday performances. World-renowned dulcimer player Mark Alan Wade from Marysville will be the featured soloist. Thanks to all the musicians, sponsors, and concertgoers who have kept Delaware’s musical legacy alive for over forty years. It is by no means easy for a community to sustain the arts, but the cost of not supporting them would be even greater. After all, it is artistic and cultural amenities that make cities vibrant and attractive and help recruit and retain workers, families, and retirees.