The Central Ohio Symphony concluded its 44th season on May 7 with another spectacular concert under the direction of Jaime Morales-Matos. Three superb works were on the program: “Nightsongs” by H. Leslie Adams, the “Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists” by Philip Glass, and the Symphony No. 7 by Ludwig van Beethoven.
H. Leslie Adams (born in 1932) is an Ohio composer of African-American descent who lives in Cleveland. Although classically trained at Oberlin College, the Ohio State University, and other schools, he also incorporates many elements of black culture. One example is “Nightsongs,” a 1961 cycle of songs based on six poems by black writers such as Langston Hughes, also a Clevelander at one point in his life. Their dominant theme is darkness and defeat, grief and tears. “Bitter black despair” not only refers to disappointed love but to the historically dismal social conditions of many heart-broken black men and women in general. Moments of audacious daring and blissful happiness are short and fleeting. Adams’ tragic music captures that lived experience well. Local soprano Angel V. Tyler, who frequently performs with the Symphony, was the soloist of this orchestral version of this noteworthy song cycle. With her astounding vocal range, she was perfectly suited for the role. Once again her lush, strong, and warm voice stirred the audience. It is as sweet and comforting as honey, but it is also capable of soaring fearlessly when the occasion called for it.
American composer Philip Glass (born in 1937) is best known as a so-called minimalist. However, his “Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists,” which premiered in 2000, transcends minimalism and approaches the format and soundscape of a traditional concerto. The work has three movements, simply labeled I, II, and III. The centerpiece is slow and pensive whereas the other movements are fast and fierce and, at times, even stormy and thundering. True to his unique style, Glass uses tiny melodic phrases and repeats them over and over, each time with slight variations. Due to their repetitive nature, they become mantra-like earworms that linger in the listener’s mind forever. The image of a river comes to mind. It is always the same, but at the same time it is always different. It may swell and ebb and change its appearance, temperament, and color. But the flow never stops. The work is not heard very often. In fact, this reviewer has never seen it performed live before. However, it quickly became one of his favorite pieces.
Drummers and other percussionists are usually relegated to the back of an orchestra, but here they took center stage. Warren Hyer and guest artist John Kilkenny were the soloists of the concerto. The work demands significant athletic skills from the master timpanists. Surrounded by a circle of kettle drums each, their dexterous arms and hands were at times flying like a dizzying whirlwind, almost impossible to follow with one’s eyes. While local musician Hyer performed his seated role in a cool, undramatic manner, unseated guest artist Kilkenny decided to treat the audience to an unforgettable spectacle. There is, by the way, nothing wrong with a bit of showmanship. Under the unflappable direction of Maestro Morales-Matos, the Symphony did an outstanding job, and the enraptured audience responded with a standing ovation. Unfortunately, in the recording of the concerto the orchestra sounds muffled and choked compared to the dominant timpani, creating an imbalance. It had to do with the positioning of the recording microphone, I suppose, which may have been too close to the drums.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) and other European intellectuals were at one point infatuated with Napoleon Bonaparte, the revolutionary French general, but eventually soured against him when the autocrat crowned himself Emperor in 1804 and started to invade other countries. Several of Beethoven’s works reflect that paradigm shift. For example, Symphony No. 3 was originally dedicated to Napoleon, but Beethoven scratched out the name from the title page. When Symphony No. 7 was first performed in 1813, the program included a triumphant piece called “Wellington’s Victory” in celebration of the British victory against the usurper.
The majestic work has four movements. With the exception of the second movement, they are all highly dynamic, fiery, and even explosive as you would expect from a martial work. There is a tremendous variety in volume, tempo, rhythm, instrumentation, and so on. Abrupt changes abound. Explaining his way out of a speeding ticket, musician Oscar Levant once stated, “You can’t possibly hear the last movement of Beethoven’s Seventh and go slow.” Under Morales-Matos, the Symphony performed the challenging work with the right balance of jubilance and exactitude.
The second movement stands out, however. It is slow compared to the others and written in a dark minor key. It would not be amiss to call it a sad, mournful funeral march, perhaps for the fallen soldiers. Deep string notes kick off the “Allegretto.” The pensive motif is then repeated in endless ways until the whole orchestra weeps. It is a memorable piece indeed. At the premiere in 1813, the audience demanded to hear it a second time, and it has frequently been used in movies.
The entire May 5 concert was recorded by OWU’s videographer Elaine Chun and is available on the Symphony’s website, www.centralohiosymphony.org. The program was once again supported by the Ohio Arts Council, PNC Arts Alive, the City of Delaware, and Ohio Wesleyan University. A free shuttle service was provided through a special grant from SourcePoint.
Last summer and during the 2022-23 season, the Central Ohio Symphony introduced the audience to many unique musical instruments. Among them was the harpsichord, theremin, trombone, Irish bagpipe (uilleann pipe), oboe, and timpano. During the upcoming Season 45, the grand organ in Gray Chapel will play a prominent role on two occasions: Camille Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3, the “Organ Symphony,” and Francis Poulenc’s “Organ Concerto.” The complete program will be mailed to subscribers soon. In the meantime, mark your calendar for the annual July 4th Concert on Tuesday, July 4 (7:30 p.m.), at Phillips Glen on the OWU campus. Lawn seating is free.
Lastly, not everybody may be aware that the Symphony’s office has moved from its old location on 24 E. Winter St. to the Historic Jail at 20 W. Central Ave. where it is renting space from the Delaware County Historical Society. Visitors may use the parking lot and ADA-accessible entrance door off Court Street.
Local resident Thomas K. Wolber, Ph.D., taught foreign languages and literatures at Ohio Wesleyan University for over 30 years. He is now retired. Wolber has an undergraduate degree in music from a German university, plays the piano, and is passionate about classical music. His email address is [email protected].