Symphony weaves tapestry of Ohio voices


By Thomas Wolber - Special to The Gazette



On April 22, the Central Ohio Symphony concluded its 38th subscription season with another spectacular concert in Gray Chapel on the Ohio Wesleyan campus. Entitled “Hear Ohio,” it assembled various composers, soloists, and ensembles with Ohio connections.

The concert began with a piece for orchestra and recorded voices by Clint Needham, from Baldwin Wallace University. “We Are All from Somewhere Else” is based on interviews with 25 men and women from around the world who settled in Ohio.

They initially experienced culture shock, but eventually started to develop roots and now consider the Buckeye State their home. Needham’s music deftly illustrates the harsh conditions and turbulences some of these voyagers faced, using brass and African marimbas as well as complicated rhythms and sounds that are full of tension.

Trumpet tremolos sounded from both sides of the room to depict the distant origin of some of the newcomers. Needham’s music is filled with tumultuous energy and wild dynamism.

Of the four pieces on the program, it was clearly the one that challenged the audience the most. However, the human voices provided a narrative and framework that helped people understand the meaning of the music.

Ernest Bloch was the first Director of the Cleveland Institute of Music from 1920 to 1924. His symphonic rhapsody “Schelomo” for cello and orchestra from the year 1917 is a complex and interesting work, somewhat outside the mainstream.

Bloch (1880-1959) explored “the Hebrew spirit” and his own Jewish identity in a number of musical pieces at that time. Schelomo is, of course, the Hebraic name for King Solomon of the Talmudic portion of the Old Testament who is believed to have written the book of Ecclesiastes.

Wise as he was, the king came to the melancholy conclusion that worldliness is vanity. It is a brooding and deeply moving piece that dwells much in the dark and low registers of the cello, which represented King Solomon. Bloch originally conceived the rhapsody as a vocal work, but eventually settled for the cello and its powerful ways to express the human psyche.

The relationship between the cello and the orchestra is a conflicted one – each seems to have its own agenda. The dialogue is more of a monologue by the cello, which stubbornly tries to find and steer its own path in the midst of a chaotic world at war. Soloist Michael Carrera, faculty at Ohio University, had the spiritual focus, emotional depth, and mechanical technique to do justice to this great work, which remains somewhat enigmatic.

After intermission, the concert continued with the world premiere of a new arrangement of Antonio Vivaldi’s Cello Concerto in G major by Michael Carrera. In the program notes, the soloist explains that it was his goal to give the cello “a much bigger role throughout the entire concerto.”

Baroque composer Vivaldi may have rejected this approach as individualistic hubris, but it did allow Carrera to show off not only his great virtuosity throughout the concerto but also his lyrical and musical sensitivity in the song-like aria of the slow second movement.

He played the work with supreme confidence. The orchestra and the accompanying harpsichord had more of a supporting role instead of being equal partners, but they performed their duties flawlessly.

John Paul Stanbery’s “Music for Mass” concluded the concert. It is an ambitious work that involves not only a full orchestra, but also the organ, guest choirs, a handbell ensemble, a vocal soloist, and – to some extent – even the audience. To find the right balance between all these moving parts took time and effort during the rehearsals, but the result was certainly impressive and memorable.

Ohio-born Stanbery, music director of the Hamilton Fairfield Symphony, saw the need to create a modern mass and deliberately set to compose a work that would be “easily accessible.” Finding “a balance between high art and effective liturgical application” was his express objective.

Dissonances, to the extent they occur at all, are slight and short-lived. Written in a single key, C major, all seven segments contain simple phrases and tunes that can be quickly and easily understood, learned, and remembered. In fact, upon leaving the concert, many people were still singing or humming some of the memorable tunes. Despite these self-imposed limitations, the sound of “Music for Mass” was rich and dense, in part due to the many layers of voices and instrumentalists.

Some 120 musicians were on stage when the work was performed – approaching late-Romantic proportions. Scott Wyatt’s beautiful tenor filled the entire great hall, and the student choirs from Cincinnati Christian University and Ohio Wesleyan University backed him up with their angelic voices.

The majestic organ, however, had to be pulled back somewhat lest it dominated everything.

Despite the fact Stanbery wants his music to be accessible and singable, portions of the orchestral score were actually quite sophisticated. “In the Cathedral” (from his award-winning Symphony No. 2) combined melodic phrases with rhythms that were difficult to follow and to perform, but the Symphony under the baton of Jaime Morales-Matos rose to the occasion and handled the challenge well. The appreciative audience responded with a standing ovation.

The concert covered a broad range of human feelings. There were expressions of hopelessness and despair, of pain and suffering. There were earnest cries of mercy and forgiveness. And even hope and happiness could be found in some of the chants and songs, prayers and poetry. Swaying from agony to ecstasy is what makes us human.

This is what the Symphony celebrated on the night of the concert — the apotheosis of the human spirit in a world that values material treasures more than immaterial ones. Taken together, the many disparate tunes and melodies that resounded from the stage formed a rich tapestry in which every voice, even the smallest, played an equal and indispensable role.

Thanks to everyone who made the concert possible. There are too many to name them all, but they were listed in the concert program and can also be found on the Symphony’s website. Please mark the dates for the 39th season 2017-18: Oct. 14, 2017; Dec. 10, 2017; March 11, 2018; and April 28, 2018. In the meantime, there is the Summer Solstice Festival from June 18-24 and, of course, the July 4 outdoor concert on the OWU campus.

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By Thomas Wolber

Special to The Gazette

Thomas K. Wolber teaches foreign languages at Ohio Wesleyan University. He has an undergraduate degree in music from a German university, plays the piano, and is passionate about classical music. His email is tkwolber@owu.edu.

Thomas K. Wolber teaches foreign languages at Ohio Wesleyan University. He has an undergraduate degree in music from a German university, plays the piano, and is passionate about classical music. His email is tkwolber@owu.edu.