The Central Ohio Symphony opened its 40th season on October 20 with a celebration of Puerto Rican music and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2. After playing the national anthem, the concert opened with the world premiere of a fanfare by local high-school senior Noah Goulet, “Sounds Opening.” The 40-second piece consists of repeated trumpet blasts that shoot high up into the air, anchored by drums. There is no tune per se. Instead, it might be called a “reveille,” a curtain raiser. It sure is an attention-grabbing piece, intended to wake people up and invite them into the concert hall. Interestingly, its ending remains open and unresolved. Perhaps the young composer is suggesting that the rest of the concert, the season, and the next forty years of the Symphony will bring closure and fulfillment. The next three concerts will also open with 40-second fanfares, specially commissioned for the occasion.
Next on the program were two juxtaposing compositions by Sonia Morales-Matos, a Puerto Rican composer who now lives and works in Cincinnati. “Tembandumba’s Court Dance,” part of an opera in progress, is a “fantastic” piece in the tradition of Berlioz. Tembandumba, a character from Puerto Rican poetry, is a West African queen sold into slavery. During the day, the prisoners have to work hard, but at night they are free to sing, dance, and frolic to keep them happy and prevent them from rebelling against their masters. “Tembandumba’s Court Dance” is a wild, bacchanalian celebration on the star-lit beaches of the Caribbean, complete with African bomba drums. The mood, however, is not a festive one. The music is bitter, and there is pain and suffering as evidenced by sharp, ragged edges. At any moment, it seems, the pandemonium could turn into a slave revolt. This clearly is a difficult-to-perform work. The percussion section takes a predominant role in the piece. Primeval and complex bomba-drum rhythms performed by soloists Rolando Morales-Matos and Raphael Jacob Torn are all you hear for several minutes. The physical speed and strength of the two drummers, known for their participation in the Broadway production of “The Lion King,” is astounding. Ancient and modern elements blend in this remarkable concert piece that is evocative of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.”
“Paisejas for Cuatro and Orchestra” is written in a more traditional and folkloristic mode. The cuatro, a four-string guitar, is Puerto Rico’s national instrument. Sonia Matos-Morales conceived the tone poem when she visited and rediscovered Puerto Rico after a prolonged absence. She was struck by the lush beauty of the island and went on to describe its many landscapes (“paisejas”) in music. The accompanying photography by Jorge Colón depicts coastal areas again and again, but we also encounter green mountainous regions with rich plant and animal life as well as portraits of social customs and the architectural heritage. The music too waxes and wanes. It moves from panoramic vistas to smaller features such as birds, flowers, and the coquí frog as it immerses the listeners into the paradise that Puerto Rico can be. “Paisejas” is a sympathetic portrait of the Caribbean island, complete with a multitude of Latin American dance tunes and rhythms. At one point, for a brief minute or so, dark staccato notes creep into the travelogue. Sonia Matos-Morales says she was thinking of the disruptive and destructive aspects of urbanism, but in an interview she stated that the interpretation of the theme as a natural disaster (e.g., Hurricane Maria) would not be wrong. Quickly, however, the inhabitants of the island forget the threat of evil, and “Paisejas” ends in a joyous, riotous, and heavily syncopated celebration of life in which all instruments come together.
Award-winning soloist Maribel Delgado is one of the foremost experts on the cuatro. Her mastery of the instrument was obvious, her dexterity hypnotizing. The cuatro is an intimate instrument, however, and it required considerable effort to get the electronic amplification just right.
Puerto Rico has suffered from both poverty and natural disasters, but it has a lot to offer. Perhaps tourism and statehood are the way to lift the inhabitants into prosperity and integrate the beautiful Caribbean island better into the fabric of America. There are no better ambassadors than the Morales-Matos family.
After intermission, the Symphony under music director Jaime Morales-Matos performed Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2, op. 27, in E minor. It is a grand work in the Romantic tradition of Tchaikovsky. It is hard to fathom that it was written at the same time Stravinsky and Prokofiev emerged (1906-07). However, late Romanticism flourished well into the 20th century as names such as Grieg, Mahler, Rimsky-Korsakov, Sibelius, and Strauss suggest.
Rachmaninoff’s pieces and concerts for the piano are divine. He struggled with symphonic music, however. His Symphony No. 1 was widely considered a failure. It was not until ten years later that his second symphony was written and performed, to considerable success. It starts with a somber largo in E minor that involves a lot of legato. The second movement, in A minor, is a dark scherzo that twice references the “Dies Irae,” the Day of Wrath. The third and fourth movements, however, are written in triumphant and joyous major keys. The rich sound of the full orchestra filled the concert hall and rocked the walls of Gray Chapel. A standing ovation awaited the orchestra and its music director at the end.
The red ruby is the gemstone used to celebrate forty years of passion, love, and commitment. It is also the symbol the Symphony used to commemorate its fortieth anniversary. Board member David Heijmanowski announced that the Symphony has 560 season-ticket holders this year. Last year, the Symphony reached some 14,000 people at its various concerts, including the annual Fourth of July concert. Subscribers, musicians, and sponsors remain firmly committed to the Symphony. There is no sign of “audience fatigue.”
However, this reviewer recommends that some foresight be given to staging and choreography, not just the musical substance. Things worked out all well in the end, but clearly several items were improvised at the last minute. In addition, the Symphony tends to be somewhat static and staid. A bit more dynamism would help loosen things up. Major conductors and orchestras around the nation are experimenting with offering their audiences more “experiences.”
The Central Ohio Symphony is an exceptionally versatile orchestra, as this concert proved. It will continue to evolve and take on additional responsibilities. For example, it has received another grant from the League of American Orchestra Futures Fund to explore how to become even more integrated into local communities and to positively impact neighborhoods. There are audiences out there that the Symphony has not yet reached. At the same time it has a duty to stay true to its deep roots and rich legacy. As often in life, the trick is to maintain a healthy balance between the old and the new, and between the past and the future.
Thomas K. Wolber, Ph.D., teaches foreign languages and literatures 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 address is firstname.lastname@example.org.