Symphony has ‘Local Focus’


By Thomas K. Wolber - Contributing columnist



The Central Ohio Symphony concluded its 40th season on April 27 with a nearly sold-out concert entitled “Local Focus.” The first half of the program featured several local composers and performers.

The evening began with various speeches. Sponsor PNC Foundation sent a message that saluted “the vibrant arts scene in Delaware.” The grants received by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy (WPA) were acknowledged. City Manager Tom Homan read a proclamation declaring April 27 “Central Ohio Symphony Day” as well as a proclamation on behalf of nationally known photographer Frank Lee Ruggles, who was on stage.

The concert then began in earnest. Central Ohio composer Danny Clay, currently based in San Francisco, provided another one-minute fanfare to celebrate the Symphony’s 40th anniversary. He wrote it in collaboration with 26 fourth-graders from Buckeye Valley West Elementary who created color-coded graphic sketches that the composer then arranged and orchestrated. During rehearsals, the Symphony had approached Clay’s “Four-Second Fanfares” in austere seriousness, but when the wacky drawings were shown on screen with the music playing, they drew appropriate laughter from the audience. Clay, who was in attendance, enjoys working with children and often includes elements of youthful play and games, and even toy instruments into his compositions. His “Four-Second Fanfares” are hard to characterize, but the end result is one continuous movement in which wind, string, and percussion instruments and even human vocalizations all have a playful role.

The second part of the program focused on the photography and videography of Frank Lee Ruggles. The artist graduated from Hayes High School in 1985 to pursue a career in the Army, but after four years, he was forced to end his military career due to a parachuting accident. Instead, he turned to photography. From 2007 to 2011, he was an official photographer for the National Park Service. Ansel Adams became his role model, and he wholeheartedly embraced the artistic style as well as the conservation philosophy of America’s most famous nature photographer. The result is a beautiful book entitled “Chasing Light,” which was for sale at the concert, and the short film “Expedition.” Although it is only 16 minutes long, it depicts countless poetic images of mesmerizing landscapes, water features, and the natural world. Two composers with local roots, Jennifer Jolley and Lauren Spavelko, wrote original music commissioned by the Symphony to accompany the documentary. Both were present during the final rehearsals and on the day of the performance.

Jolley’s “Blue Glacier Decoy” is a reference to the glaciers of the Pacific Northwest. The piece, originally written for a small chamber ensemble, begins minimalistic enough. Slow and simple orchestral chords form a deep and strong collective counterpoint that is maintained throughout. Increasingly, however, idiosyncratic fissures and melodic rivulets creep in that become gradually longer, more complex, and more pronounced strands. Eventually, in a riotous crescendo, the calving glacier tumbles into the ocean, forming a tumultuous, chaotic pandemonium that almost leaves any semblance of law and order behind. This reviewer is reminded of Olivier Messiaen’s “The Creation of the World.” Intentionally or not, Jolley seems to have attempted a similar “big bang” or genesis story. The powerful piece, orchestrated by local composer and collaborator Noah Goulet during weeks of work, ends like it started – slow and smooth in simple, ascending chords, eventually coming to rest. The Hayes High School senior will study at the prestigious Peabody Institute in Baltimore after graduation. Jolley herself was affiliated with Ohio Wesleyan University until 2018 and is now with Texas Tech University in Lubbock.

Lauren Spavelko’s “Kéyah” also depicts the American landscape as described by Ruggles. “Kéyah” is Navajo for “land.” However, it is a different kind of portrayal. She is traversing the primeval land and describing its majestic vistas acoustically. The wind is blowing, horses are galloping, the sun is setting, and the stars are shining. Howard Harold Hanson’s quintessential American symphonies come to mind. The vibrant imagery and tapestry of Ruggles, Jolley, and Spavelko go beyond the descriptive. All three are actively promoting awareness of the natural world and its unique wonders as well as advocacy for preservation and conservation efforts. “My work is a call for action,” says Ruggles, who considers his environmentalism a form of service to the country. When a presidential candidate recently set foot into Yosemite Park for the first time, he called it “a religious experience.” Nature is sacred for Ruggles as well.

Spavelko’s “Kéyah” was an excellent segue into the next number on the program – George Gershwin’s “Piano Concerto in F,” a work that premiered in 1925. The soloist was Jacob Miller, a Delaware native, an OWU graduate (2016), and currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music. The challenging work is an interesting mixture of European, American, and African styles and rhythms. It is hard to believe that Gershwin was once not taken seriously as a composer. For Eurocentric music lovers he, along with Bernstein, Copland, Gottschalk, Hanson, and Joplin were too “jazzy,” meaning having less value. All this has changed, of course.

It is fair to state that Gershwin’s piano concerto is a post-romantic work; lyrical and emotive elements are short and fleeting. Instead, it is more a reflection of modern, industrial life. It depicts the 20th-century city with its dynamic pace, busy traffic, syncopative lifestyle, and percussive edges. There are jagged and metallic twists and turns everywhere. The hammers never stop and the city never sleeps. It is not a coincidence that the concerto is rich in percussion instruments. Miller played the challenging work with a great understanding of and feeling for Gershwin. The concerto contains complex rhythms, but the soloist had no difficulty delivering a clear, succinct, and precise rendition where every note and every beat was distinct. He pummeled the keyboard when called upon to do so, but he was also capable of using expressive language when warranted. Unfortunately, during tutti and fortissimo moments the orchestra’s brass section rendered the piano sometimes inaudible. The hands were moving, but the sound disappeared in the ocean of music surrounding it. Maybe that’s not a bad thing after all because in such moments the orchestra and the piano merged into one body. It was also interesting to watch the dialogical interaction of the soloist with the conductor and the orchestra during the rehearsals and the concert. Miller clearly is already an experienced collaborative partner and accompanist. He may not have been originally a natural in this respect, but he has worked hard to achieve better communication and integration. In time, the young soloist will no doubt emerge as a first-rate accompanist and chamber-music player.

After intermission, Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” was performed. It is a magnificent romantic symphony in the grand European tradition. It is true that the Czech composer lived and worked in the U.S. from 1892 to 1895 and was exposed to the vernacular culture he found there, including African-American spirituals and Native-American music. However, this reviewer, along with other music historians, sees only limited “American” influence in the symphony’s four movements. Dvorak did not suddenly become a different composer in New York. Gustav Mahler also lived and worked in America for a while, but the experience did not change his essential identity and musical style. The one exception I would make is Dvorak’s reading of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha,” a long, epic poem that evokes the Native-American world. The unique style of the poem, and its ritualistic and formulaic repetitions and alliterations, is somewhat emulated in the recurring and ceremonial language of the symphony. However, this kind of language is not American per se. It can be found in ancient and medieval poetry throughout the world. Longfellow did not invent this style; his model was in fact the Finnish “Kalevala.” Richard Wagner did something similar in his “Parsifal.” However, these quibbles over the substance and essence of Dvorak’s opus magnum are of secondary importance. What matters is that the Symphony under the direction of Maestro Jaime Morales-Matos delivered a first-rate rendition of the magnificent work that calls for great lyricism and expressivity. However, the conductor never sacrificed the required rigor and precision. The audience applauded the performance with a well-deserved standing ovation.

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By Thomas K. Wolber

Contributing columnist

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 tkwolber@owu.edu.

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 tkwolber@owu.edu.