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The final concert of Hendersonville Symphony Orchestra’s 43rd season included three familiar and beloved works: Gioachino Rossini’s William Tell Overture, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and Ottorino Respighi’s tone poem The Pines of Rome. Kiffen Loomis, the winner of this year’s Young Artist Competition, was soloist in the Rachmaninoff.
Let’s speak first about the astonishingly mature interpretation of the Rachmaninoff that Loomis provided for us. When I was sixteen (which is Mr. Loomis’ current age), I thought of Rachmaninoff as “the last of the Russian Romantics,” while I considered his fellow Russian emigrés, Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev as modernists. Loomis clearly has the insight that Rachmaninoff is a transitional composer, with lush romanticism and a dash of modernism influencing his sensibility. Perhaps not that far from Prokofiev, after all.
Mr. Loomis provided individual touches that showed he’s not copying another performer. I liked the dynamic contrasts he used in the first few variations, a sort of echo effect. In the lyrical variations, he wasn’t afraid to use a lot of rubato. He gave us the Dies Irae theme clearly the several times it occurs, but didn’t make a huge spectacle of it. The only room for improvement might be in making some of the phrase endings a little cleaner, perhaps with less pedal. But in a work with this much technical difficulty, that is a balancing act.
The orchestra, under music director Thomas Joiner, was solidly there in support of the soloist. A small French horn bobble in the twelfth variation was quickly suppressed. Pamela Sacco performed the English horn solo in the sixteenth variation with beauty and grace.
Considering this performance, I listened once again to the 1951 recording of the work featuring William Kapell. Kapell died in a plane crash at age thirty-one. Had he lived longer, he would be a household name – the first American-born superstar pianist. Kapell’s signature piece in his brief career was the Piano Concerto of Aram Khachaturian. Just as I can see Khachaturian affecting Kapell’s interpretation of Rachmaninoff, so I suspect that Prokofiev affects Loomis’ sense of the composer. Wherever Loomis’ interpretation comes from, I admire the musicality that it shows.
The concert began with the Rossini William Tell Overture, which inevitably causes a stir in the audience with its “Lone Ranger” connotation. That finale is actually entitled “March of the Swiss Soldiers.” The four-hour opera, which was Rossini’s last before he retired at age thirty-eight, is seldom performed nowadays. The overture, however, is justifiably among his most popular. It begins with a passage for five solo cellos and continues with an evocative storm scene. That solo cellos passage and the English horn part in the pastorale were well done. There were intonation problems in the brass at one point in the pastorale.
Ottorino Respighi was a superb orchestrator – so good that I have to forgive him for being a somewhat banal composer. He uses large orchestral forces brilliantly in his three tone poems on Roman themes, the finest of which is The Pines of Rome. The four contrasting scenes evoke children playing in the Villa Borghese, the austere holiness of The Catacombs, moonlight on the Janiculum, and the glory that was Rome as legions ghostly tread on the Appian Way. Maestro Joiner was at his best in the finale, commanding the large forces (including eighteen brass musicians, a small army of percussionists, and during the moonlight scene, a recording of a nightingale) with a smooth and sure beat.
In lesser hands, three old warhorses might have been too many, even on Kentucky Derby Day. But in the confident hands of the Hendersonville Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Joiner and Kiffen Loomis, each of these familiar pieces was fresh and alive.