Saturday, February 24, 2018

Traveling the World Through Music—Sans Passport

Concert Review by Bryce Christensen

Might the Orchestra of Southern Utah might be accused of false advertising in its announcement that its concert on the Theme “World Wonders” would take place in Cedar City’s Heritage Center on February 22nd, 2018? Perhaps. For the hundreds who gathered for this marvelous concert soon found themselves not in Southern Utah but rather in Australia’s Barrier Reef waters, in Egypt, in India, in China, in Brazil, and in England. And they found themselves visiting these far-away places in long-ago eras. How did listeners leave 21st-century Utah behind and reach such distant and exotic regions and times? Music critic Craig Wright partly explains this marvel when commenting on what can happen to those who listen to great classical music: “The power of . . . this music will transport you. You will hear new patterns and combinations that will transport you to far-off places.” As those who gathered at the Heritage Center experienced the power of new musical patterns and combinations to transport them, the concert hall that they had supposed was their destination as they drove to 105 North 100 East in Cedar City became instead a port of departure for exciting and wonderful far-off places. The rest of the explanation for the unexpected spatiotemporal migration of the concert came in the welcoming words of OSU President Harold Shirley, who explained to the gathered audience that the evening’s music would convey listeners not only to distant places but also to long-ago times, taking them to ancient Egypt, imperial Rome, and medieval Europe. Who knew that the Heritage Center could double as both an airport terminal and a time machine?

And the travels in space and time began with the evening’s very first number: Douglas Wagner’s Ancient Echoes of Time, a number so richly suggestive of the grandeur and majesty of Imperial Rome that the images of the Colosseum projected onto screens on either side of the stage provided the perfect visual complement. As the presiding artistic force for the evening’s astounding forays, conductor Carylee Zwang evinced impressive confidence and poise from the evening’s first notes, as she drew from the orchestra perfectly modulated and nuanced renditions of music evoking a diverse range of places and eras.

Via the superb musicianship of both the conductor and the orchestra, the members of audience next found themselves not in ancient Rome but rather in 17th-century India, as imposing images of the Taj Mahal took the eyes to the same place and time conjured by the measures of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Song of India, measures sublimely mysterious and enigmatic.

Proving yet again that a conductor commands as much magic as any wizard, Zwang relocated the entire concert hall from pre-modern India to ancient China with just one wave of her baton as the orchestra next devoted its collective musical artistry to Jiangning Fu’s Floating Clouds and Flowing Water, a number originally premiered in China by OSU’s Music Director Xun Sun. A composition beguilingly fusing interludes of pastoral tranquility with passages alive with a spritely frolicsomeness, this music conveyed something of the Taoist Ying and Yang of the Middle Kingdom, long protected by the Great Wall, which appeared in images projected on the Concert Hall screens. Playing noteworthy solos in this laudably rendered number were Kendra Leavitt on the harp, Virginia Stitt on the English horn, and Heather Wilhelm on the violin.

Zwang and the orchestra left the stage for next two numbers, but the theme of musical travel through space and time persisted. Playing the first of these numbers, the Southern Utah String Quartet rendered a John Reed arrangement of an anonymous 16th-century British melody that casts the melodic strains of “Scarborough Fair” into Canticle style. Hauntingly plangent, this number echoed in the heart like an elegiac chant lamenting an age now forever lost, an age well symbolized by the images of Stonehenge projected during this selection. The members of the Quartet—violinists Lindsay Szczesny and Suzanne Stewart and cellist Leah Brown and violist Sara Penny—well deserved the appreciative applause from an audience genuinely moved by their imaginative visit to early England.

The Red Rock Singers replaced the Southern Utah String Quartet as the guest ensemble next transporting listeners to realms surprisingly distant from 21st-century Cedar City. Under the direction of Steve Meredith and accompanied by Lydia Feild and Tracey Bradshaw, the Singers relocated the audience into the medieval world of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, a cantata based on medieval European poetry celebrating themes such as the fickleness of Fortune, the joys of Spring, and the pleasures of dancing with a beloved. From opening notes that strain against all earthly restraint, then seguing into measures of tense and impulsive movement, this number overflows with energy that has been choreographed into apt dances. Indeed, this performance of an exciting excerpt of the vocal element of the cantata served in part as an invitation to the audience to see the full dance-and-song version at Southern Utah University’s Randall Theater, running February 28th through March 5th.

After the intermission, with the orchestra back on the stage and Zwang back on the podium, wonderful symphonic music once again carried listeners about the earth and through the epochs. With the propulsive energy of Villa-Lobos’ Jumping Bean, the audience caught a harmonic ride to South America, while they contemplated projected images of the towering statue of Christ the Redeemer rising above a modern Rio de Janeiro, contrasted with the image of the ruins of Machu Picchu preserving a trace of ancient grandeur. Reaching South America means opening breathtakingly broad vistas.
In the orchestra’s penultimate number, listeners left land behind and travelled over the sea, projected images of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef providing the visual counterpart to the variegated textures of the third movement of Debussy’s La Mer, a movement brimming with oceanic dynamism, now pacific and serene, now ominous and threatening. Tense from its opening notes, this movement concludes with a fierce squall, dissolving all resistance.

The evening’s final composition, Schwartz’s Prince of Egypt carried listeners to ancient Egypt, beholding the massive pyramids projected on the screens but also thrilling to the hope that inspired the Israelites let out of bondage by the prophet Moses. Conveying the passions, the heartache, ultimately the faith of this beleaguered people and their heroic prophet, the orchestra brought listeners right to the very edge of a Promised Land, glimpsed as a visionary possibility. With praiseworthy solos coming from violinist Heather Wilhelm, flautist Tanisa Crosby, French hornist Pete Atkins, bassoonist Julie Kluber, and clarinetist Sarah Solberg, the orchestra’s splendid performance of this popular composition no doubt had more than a few listeners quite certain that, yes, “There can be miracles when you believe.”

Zwang and the instrumentalists under her direction all deserve praise for their achievement in a concert that truly defied the constraints of both geography and chronology. The orchestra once again evinced musicianship of the first order. Steve Swift and Sam Shakespeare also merit favorable mention for the projected visual images which added colorful splendor to accompany the superlative music.

In adding poetry readings interspersed throughout evening’s concert, OSU erased a boundary separating musical from literary art. On an evening when music was smashing geographic and temporal limits, listeners may not have marveled that the boundary between literature and music also fell. To be sure, this experiment may need some refining before repeating. But the imaginative promise of fusing poetry with music did emerge clearly when the spare, dark verse of The Exeter Book ‘s “The Ruin” fittingly introduced the String Quartet’s pungent melancholy and again when Keats’ potent marine imagery from “On the Sea” provided an organic segue into Debussy’s sea-themed composition.
In all of its modes and operations, the evening’s globe-straddling, millennia-transgressing musical expedition left listeners with new appreciation for far-flung corners of the world and oft-forgotten episodes in history. Those listeners also gained a new awareness of the good fortune of living at a time and in a place where artistically minded sponsors such as the Charles and Gloria Maxfield Parrish Foundation and the Rocky Mountain Power Foundation donate generously to make concerts such as this one possible. Most of all, however, this time-and-space defying concert left listeners newly grateful that 21st-century Cedar City place enjoys the benefits of a regional orchestra sufficiently talented and imaginative to give music lovers an unforgettable melodic journey to very distant places and times.

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