Symphony performs Poulenc and Hanson


The Symphony continued its 45th season on November 18 with three intriguing works by Gala Flagello, Francis Poulenc, and Howard Hanson. Once again, Jaime Morales-Matos, now in his 21st year, served as music director and conductor of the orchestra. He is as vibrant and energetic as ever, undiminished in his ability to rally the orchestra to soaring heights.

Gala Flagello (b. 1994), the young composer of “Vitality,” attended the performance and provided a brief introduction into her short 2022 work. It was inspired, she explained, by dancer Martha Graham’s notion of an irrepressible life force present in all of us. When it demands to spring into action, we must not block it. The playful piece was written in memory of two people who were close to the composer. Their bright, inextinguishable spirits are expressed in the horn soli that appear throughout the work. “Vitality” starts out with short, jumpy, staccato-like high notes in seemingly arbitrary rhythmic order. The life force manifests itself in infantile, untamed sparks. A deeper, legato motif is then introduced, establishing melody, harmony, and solid ground. Eventually, a synthesis is achieved in which the elfish voices intermingle and pulse in concert with the community of instruments. They are given structure and purpose, without being stifled. The modern work posed a number of obstacles, but under Maestro Morales-Matos’ steady, unerring baton the orchestra did a superb job.

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) was a major French composer of the 20th century. Although a contemporary of Prokofiev and Stravinsky, he himself was not a modernist. His Organ Concerto in G minor, composed between 1934 and 1938, is highly influenced by his Christian faith as well as by the canonical organ works of Bach and Buxtehude. Despite that, or because of it, the work has become a frequently performed piece. A stage change was necessary for the performance of this concerto for organ, strings, and timpani. All woodwinds and brass instruments were banished. It was the organ alone that provided the necessary brass and wind, so to speak. In fact, the organ rests front and center throughout. It starts and ends the concerto. Amanda Mole, the evening’s soloist, had her hands and feet full. However, the seasoned and award-winning performer easily overcame all challenges and delivered a convincing rendition of this popular work. The strings too faced some wicked passages that took work and time to master, but the final result was well worth the effort.

The beautiful work itself consists of a single continuous movement, but within the concerto there are several sections that are unique in tempo, tone, and texture, ranging from largo to presto, pianissimo to fortissimo, solo to tutti, and minor keys to major keys. There are lovely, melodic tunes, but also dark and ragged passages. During rehearsals, there were moments when the powerful organ eclipsed the accompanying orchestra, but at the November concert the right balance was achieved by closing the organ’s swell shutters, which quieted the volume.

The third and final work of the evening was the popular Symphony No. 2 by Howard Hanson (1896-1981). The composer was a major figure of American music in the 20th century. For example, he led the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York for over four decades, where he influenced generations of musicians. Obviously, he had a full-time job as an educator and administrator, but he still managed to write seven remarkable symphonies in addition to countless other works.

There are some who call Hanson eclectic and unoriginal because, in their view, he was not radical and avantgardistic enough. However, he very deliberately wrote music that everyone could understand and appreciate, not just the cutting-edge elite. In the opinion of this reviewer, Howard Hanson unequivocally deserves to be called one of greatest of all times. He was born to Swedish immigrant parents, spent several formative years in Italy, and was influenced by composers such as Bruckner, Holst, Palestrina, Respighi, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Wagner. At the same time he attempted to create a uniquely American style and heavily promoted American composers, for example through his CBS radio program entitled “Milestones in American Music.”

His second symphony, the “Romantic,” is a case in point. It constitutes a successful fusion of the romantic tradition of Europe and the emerging grand American style, often heard in “film music.” It comes in three distinct movements. There are beautiful melodies, expansive landscapes, and dramatic moments that satisfy the appetite of most listeners. There is also much diversity in tempi, rhythms, instrumentation, thematic material, and so on, making the well-crafted symphony a lush banquet. Hillary Fowler is correct when she writes in the concert program, “The seamless blend of traditional Romantic elements with an American sensibility makes this symphony a timeless and captivating experience for audiences.” The work remains a beloved one to this day and is frequently performed and recorded.

It takes a village, indeed an entire city, to make concerts of this nature possible. The Central Ohio Symphony gratefully acknowledges the generous support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ohio Arts Council, the City of Delaware, Ohio Wesleyan University, and its many ticket purchases, donors, and sponsors. Thanks to OWU videographer Elaine Chun, both the October and the November concerts can be heard and seen on YouTube, by the way. There is no paywall.

The Holiday concert is just around the corner. Jaime Morales-Matos will once again conduct the orchestra in two identical concerts on Sunday, December 10 (2 and 4:30 pm) in Gray Chapel inside University Hall on the OWU campus. The concert will feature Sarah Scharbrough, a popular singer and songwriter from Indiana who has released six studio albums this far. A second guest artist will be Madison Miller, the current Miss Ohio. The Coshocton native also happens to be an accomplished pianist. As always, there will be a healthy mixture of familiar chestnuts as well as new numbers. Admission is free for any youth age 18 and under with a valid library card from the Delaware County District, Sunbury Community, and Ashley libraries.

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].

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