Symphony closes season with Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov


The Central Ohio Symphony concluded its 2023-24 season in May with another mesmerizing, unforgettable concert. On the ambitious program was a short composition by contemporary musician Jennifer Jolley and two grand works by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov.

Young composer and conductor Jennifer Jolley (b. 1981) was in attendance to introduce her piece. Formerly at Ohio Wesleyan University and Texas Tech University, she currently teaches at Lehman College in New York, part of the CUNY system. Her “Lichtweg” (“Lightway”) was inspired by a permanent light installation by trailblazing American artist Keith Sonnier (1941-2020) at Munich Airport in Germany. It is a spectacularly illuminated tunnel of 1.2 kilometers in length. As passengers rush to or from their flight gates, they are exposed to a series of neon lights, mostly red and blue. The lights are not flashing or pulsating; it is the travelers’ movement that creates the impression of dynamic change. Jolley’s work was originally written for band and premiered in 2017. What the audience heard in May was a brand-new, fully orchestrated version of the 6-minute piece. Jolley’s collaborator for the project was local composer Noah Goulet who just graduated from Peabody Institute with a BA in Music Composition.

The composition is vivid and vigorous. There is no storyline per se. The narrative consists of elongated “colorful” sounds evoked by the lights as they come into view and then fade again, superseded by new vistas. The 4-beat rhythm remains deliberate and steady throughout, suggesting intentional, uninterrupted journeying. The light images are not meant to be obtrusive or distractive. On the contrary, as the composer noted, they are meant to guide the travelers and lead them to their correct destination.

Peter I. Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) conceived his symphonic tone poem “Francesca da Rimini” after reading Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” Canto V of the “Inferno” describes the sad fate of Francesca and Paolo, her lover. For their carnal passion and adultery they are forever condemned to dwell in the Second Circle of Hell. Forbidden love is clearly a favorite topic for Tchaikovsky who was gay at a time when homosexuality was widely considered a cardinal sin, a mental disorder, and/or an unlawful crime. His “Romeo and Juliet” is a prime example of that prevailing crime-and-punishment principle.

“Francesca da Rimini” is framed by the fierce, howling whirlwinds depicted in Dante’s canto. The middle passage, however, plaintively describes the sweet, intimate love Francesca and Paolo felt for each other. A single clarinet, representing Francesca’s honeyed voice, exquisitely tells the tragic tale. Alas, their lives come to a violent end when they are both murdered by Francesca’s jealous husband. It is obvious that in Tchaikovsky’s view their love was pure and innocent and therefore the harsh punishment they received unwarranted and inappropriate. Having shared their sad story of doomed love, the hellish winds once again carry the pair away into eternal damnation.

The devilish tone poem is difficult to perform. There is a reason why the Symphony has never tackled the work before. However, under the baton of Maestro Jaime Morales-Matos the orchestra’s musicians did an outstanding job. The conductor’s energy and intensity remains unmatched and undiminished.

A recent media story called Sergey Rachmaninov (1873-1943) “the world’s most misunderstood composer.” He was and remains popular in concert halls, but modernists rejected his lush, neo-romantic style and called it “escapist,” “trivial,” “bourgeois,” or worse. I cannot agree with that assessment. Rachmaninov’s music – like Tchaikovsky’s — can indeed be passionate, but it is never meaningless or meritless.

His Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, first performed in 1909, is a case in point. It is said to be the hardest piano concerto of them all. It certainly is a challenging work even for the best pianists. Some have refused to play it altogether or only played it with certain cuts. Dror Biran was the guest soloist. He has performed with major orchestras in America, Europe, and Asia and is also an avid and experienced chamber musician. His rapport with conductor Jaime Morales-Matos was clearly harmonious, and the two worked well together. Some concertgoers may remember his performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in October 2019.

The work has three movements: Allegro ma non tanto, Intermezzo: Adagio, and Finale: Alla breve. The concerto begins with a pensive and quiet tune in D Minor, but it does not take long for the melody to morph into a series of volcanic eruptions. In his shorter piano pieces too (e.g., the “Preludes”), Rachmaninov often constructs works that combine lovely, sublime themes with blazing explosions. Even the second movement, supposedly an adagio, contains wildly unleashed elements full of stormy emotions. Gray Chapel’s old Steinway certainly experienced a furious workout that night, but it seems to have survived the hurricane unblemished.

I do have two quibbles, though. While seamless integration and fusion is a good thing, during some orchestral fortissimo climaxes the piano became inaudible. You could see the soloist’s arms and hands move, but the sound was so submerged that it became indistinguishable. In addition, I have seen and heard performances and recordings of Rachmaninov’s second and third piano concerto where every note was finely chiseled, almost steely. On that night, however, the notes sometimes seemed to melt together, especially in the presto and prestissimo passages – the result of either too much pedal or, more likely, the concert hall’s acoustics that led to ricocheting and echoing.

However, the bedazzled audience did not seem to care one bit about such details. People were clearly enraptured both by Biran’s technical brilliance and emotional intelligence and immediately jumped to their feet once the concerto ended. The pianist awarded their enthusiasm with an encore – Bach’s first Prelude in C Major from his “Well-Tempered Clavier.” I have heard and played the piece a thousand times, but Biran’s graceful performance was uniquely serene and quiet, humble and undramatic – the very opposite of flashy.

A video of the first half of the concert is available on YouTube. (Unfortunately, because of technical issues the second half if no longer available.) There is no paywall, but advertisements interrupt the flow at inopportune times.

The Symphony gratefully acknowledges the support of Ohio Wesleyan University, the City of Delaware, and the Ohio Arts Council as well as of its subscribers, ticket purchasers, and donors. SourcePoint once again provided a grant for a shuttle service between the parking lots on Henry Street and Gray Chapel inside University Hall.

The annual Fourth of July concert is not far away. It will take place at its usual location in Phillips Glen on the OWU campus on Thursday, July 4 (7:30 p.m.). Lawn seating is free.

The 46th season starts Oct. 12. The Dalí Quartet, an acclaimed strings group, will join the Symphony on that day. Other highlights of the 2024-25 season include the world premiere of a Theremin concerto, the Holiday Concert (with Sarah Scharbrough), Brahms’ Violin Concerto (with Dylena Jensen as soloist), and renowned trombonist Fred Luis. More information will be available soon.

By the time fall rolls around, the orchestra will have a new executive director on board. But other than that not much will change. The Symphony, under the tutelage of Music Director and Conductor Jaime Morales-Matos, will continue to engage and enrich, entertain and educate the community with a healthy mix of traditional classical music and more popular and modern genres. As composer Jennifer Jolley pointed out, Delaware is truly blessed to house such “a gem.” It makes the city a more livable place.

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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