Back to School With OSU
By Bryce Christensen
With its first concert of the 2012-13 season, the Orchestra of Southern Utah (OSU) brought listeners back to school. But with a program culminating in Symphony No. 8 by Anton Bruckner, it was an excitingly new school that welcomed the audience gathered at the Heritage Center on September 27th. For Bruckner was a daringly innovative composer. .In the opinion of leading musicologists, he “alone succeeded in creating a new school of symphonic writing” by giving the world a “new and monumental type of symphonic organism . . . something elemental and metaphysical.”
But in the first concert of its ’12-’13 Soundscapes series, OSU delivered a concert delivering lessons from the best of the old school and the best of the new. So before bringing its listeners to the revolutionary new school of the Brucknerian symphony, OSU carried them along a delightful musical road with two refreshing stops at impressive harmonic edifices erected by that old-school Baroque schoolmaster Johann Sebastian Bach.
As the first of these stops, Bach’s Concerto No. 1 in C minor for Two Pianos showcased the talents of guest soloists Ericka Dobson at one keyboard and of OSU Assistant Conductor Gerald Rheault at the other. In fact, Rheault carried the double role of piano soloist and orchestra director, adroitly leading OSU’s string section from his piano bench. Though not new, the musical lessons in this first concert schoolroom were rendered with grace and skill. From the spritely yet elegant notes of the opening movement, to the stately and regally cadenced measures of the second movement, to the fervent heat of the kinetic third movement, conductor, soloists, and orchestra reminded listeners of just how much an 18th-century genius can still teach the 21st century about harmonic beauty.
Years of advanced study and concert experience were evident in Rheult’s impressive dual performance as piano soloist and conductor of the evening’s first number. Perhaps more surprising was the poised and memorable performance of Dobson as the second piano soloist. Though just an undergraduate at SUU, Dobson performed with the aplomb and self-possession of a mature and older musical artist.
For the second number on the evening’s program—Bach’s Cantata 196—the OSU strings were joined by a choir under the direction of Adrianne Tawa and James Harrison. Opening with a Baroque richness redolent of the opulent courts of 18th-century royalty, the strings were then joined by the resonant and well-trained voices of the choir, singing with a devotional intensity suggestive not so much of the palatial courts of the Enlightenment as of the magnificent cathedrals of Europe’s high medieval era. As the soprano soloist for the Aria, Sara Guttenberg sang a stream of liquid gold, her soaring voice an irresistible current of vocal joy.
Melding their voices in the darker-toned Duetto, the tenor Lawrnce Johnson and the baritone Alex Byers together wove a textured fabric of soul-probing striving. Familiar to Cedar City music-lovers for his strong solos over the years in the Messiah, Johnson met and exceeded the high expectations he has created by his past performances. But as a gifted young voice fully able to complement the much more seasoned Johnson, Byers identified himself as a rising star in Cedar City’s musical skies.
In the final section of the Cantata, the combined voices of the full chorus swelled in a jubilant uprising of devout passion, point and counterpoint merging in a brilliant tapestry of worshipful complexity.
After the intermission, having twice visited the venerable schoolroom maintained by Bach, OSU was ready for its marvelously new-school destination: the Finale of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8. Even in this excerpt from the complete Symphony, listeners thrilled to the bold originality of Bruckner’s symphonic architecture, an architecture that frequently shifts in vertiginous ways.
Taut with tension in its opening notes, the Finale transitions unpredictably—now reflectively tranquil, now morosely brooding, now martially combative, now angelically celestial, now infernally fiery, and now coolly quiescent. To meet the challenge of this daunting number, the full OSU orchestra added the talents of the Symphony Orchestra of Southern Utah. Some of the abrupt musical transitions made unusual demands on listeners. But it is a high tribute to the gifts of OSU conductor and director Xun Sun that he drew from the combined orchestras a sustained interpretive sensitivity through all of the diverse moods of this difficult masterpiece. Whether in pacific calm or turbulent kineticism, conductor and orchestras delivered musicianship of the highest order. Under Sun’s ardent baton, strings, winds, brass, and percussion all met the demanding test that Bruckner set before them, and did so with praiseworthy distinction.
Under a musical spell that persisted after the last round of applause had died away, the audience for this first OSU concert of the season left the concert hall deeply grateful for the opportunity to be back at school under the tutelage of such inspiring musical masters. Lessons as musically rewarding as the ones OSU delivered in this concert indeed left listeners counting the days until OSU class is back in session in November, when Bach, Beethoven, and Strauss will set the curriculum.