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Orchestral Music Review Print

Western Piedmont Symphony's Masterworks IV

March 8, 2008 - Hickory, NC:

"Salsa" is the Spanish word for sauce, connoting a spicy flavo; in dance and music, it is a flirtatious and sensuous Spanish Caribbean and Latin American style. This, in a word, perfectly describes the concert of the same name presented by the Western Piedmont Symphony Orchestra at the First Baptist Church under the baton of Music Director John Gordon Ross.

The program opened with "El Salón México," a raucous reminiscence of American composer Aaron Copland's (1900-90) visit to a popular dance hall in Mexico City in 1932. It is based on Mexican folk songs rather than songs he heard at the hall. The themes are jazzed up and all mixed up and are tossed back and forth among the winds, strings, and percussion. The orchestra members literally danced their way through this work, becoming headier as they went on to a boisterous conclusion.

Manuel Ponce (1882-1948) is recognized as the father of Mexican musical nationalism. His Chapultepec: Three Symphonic Sketches was played next on the program. It is a symphonic triptych which combines themes of Mexican inspiration with impressionistic orchestration. Chapultepec is a castle on the outskirts of Mexico City that was occupied by the Emperor Maximilian. The sections of the piece are "Primavera" ("Spring"), "Nocturno" ("Night"), and "Canto y danca" ("Song and Dance"). The orchestra played all three movements beautifully, especially the second, which was soft and dreamy.

The Fantasy on Bizet's Carmen, Op. 25, by Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908), a Spanish composer, is a dazzling showpiece for violin and orchestra. Stefani Collins, the violin soloist, certainly did not fail to shine. Wearing an elegant red and black gown with the skirt cut up the front in Spanish style, Collins' playing had every bit as much pizzazz as her dress. Sarasate uses five pieces from the opera Carmen and ornaments them to the hilt. Collins is a graduate of the High School Division of the North Carolina School of the Arts and is currently in her first year at the Cleveland Institute of Music, studying with Paul Kantor. Her playing is elegant, with a big, broad sound, and deft and agile, able to traverse all of the intricacies of Sarsate's virtuosic demands. Of special note was the "Habanera", where Carmen is singing of her love for Don Jose. The playing, lush and sensual, brought to mind a word to describe Carmen that is not used in polite society. The final movement is a tour de force which builds to a furious pyrotechnical conclusion; executed perfectly by both soloist and orchestra, it brought a cheering audience to its feet.

The concert concluded with Argentinean composer Alberto Ginastera's (1916-1983) Ballet Suite Estancia, Op. 8a. The ballet Estancia (the title translates as "a large ranch") was commissioned in 1941 by the American Ballet Caravan but was not produced until 1952. In 1943, Ginastera put together a four-movement orchestral suite from the ballet. The work is based on Argentine country life: a young man from the city has to prove he is able to do the hard work on the ranch in order to win the love of a young girl. The individual movements start with "The Land Workers," followed by "The Dance of the Wheat," where there is an air of tranquility and a sense of the beauty of nature. "The Cattlemen" is muscular and rhythmic, with complex meters and time signature changes, in which piano, timpani, and bass drum have major roles. The final movement, "Danza," represents a malambo, a dance for men only that is the final proof of manhood: the winner is the last man standing. The music requires full orchestra and a full complement of percussion, and it moves furiously and ever so fast to a rapid, sweeping conclusion. The musicians' energy and stamina held up until the very end. They were all still upright and erect, unlike the dancers, who, with the exception of the winner, would have been lying on the floor!

So, what was a very chilly evening on the outside was a hot and spicy to-do on the inside, a concert well performed and enjoyed by all.