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Curtis Symphony Orchestra is an arm of Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, which was founded in 1924 by Mary Louise Curtis Bok, the only child of Cyrus H. K. Curtis, founder of Curtis Publishing. The orchestra is comprised of bright and talented Curtis students, many of them emerging as virtuosic artists.
The Institute engages outstanding conductors and instrumentalists to provide first class learning experiences for the eager students. The guest conductor this season is the highly acclaimed Finn, Osmo Vänskä, who earned wide praise for his recording of the Sibelius symphonies with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra. During his years at the helm of the Minnesota Orchestra (starting in 2003), Vänskä and the orchestra received much critical praise, and he is generally regarded as having enhanced the quality of the orchestra.*
This concert, presented by Duke Performances, included Sibelius' expansive Second Symphony, Beethoven's masterful Emperor Concerto featuring Curtis' piano faculty member Jonathan Biss, and a new composition commissioned by the orchestra from young Curtis alumna Gabriella Smith. She titled her orchestral ensemble piece "f(x) = sin²x –1/x." What is this? It is perhaps the first challenge of a young composer to come up with something approaching originality and arousing at least curiosity. The composer links her interests in the natural wonders of the Pacific Coast and, as many composers of the past, the intriguing hints of mathematical connections with music.
A formula, such as the one given as the title to this piece, can be used to describe a curve in a line and a direction for mapping the curve. All I can say is that I would like to hear this piece again. It introduces unique sounds by approaching orchestral instruments in varying manner from the standard performance practices of such instruments.
For example, the opening passage features very soft muted violins and brass and woodwinds playing a very soft flutter-tongue effect.
To hear Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat, Op. 73 ("Emperor"), is always a joy and a revelation. To celebrate the regal theme that arises and captivates the first movement. To float on the gentle breeze of the captivating second movement melody. To sense the struggle, the build-up of tension at the end of the second movement and the explosion of joy that opens the third movement.
Soloist Biss and Vänskä, the leader of the orchestra, seemed to be of one mind. The precision of the performance was outstanding, with crescendos and diminuendos in perfect balance, attacks and releases crisp and clean, and hand-offs smooth and well matched. It was a rich and fulfilling performance.
Sibelius' Second, like all his symphonies, projects a mood: the atmosphere of the north hovers over all seven of the symphonies in one way or another. All the symphonies are shaped out of materials that have gone before and are developed toward a more mature statement. The gentle rocking theme that opens the Second is joined by clarinets, oboes, then flutes, and finally French horns. It is passed back and forth, altered and enriched as new ideas are added until the strings sing out the rapturous main theme. It builds to an aching beauty, then falls gradually back to settle on that restless opening theme to end the first movement quietly and calmly.
The second movement begins with a mysterious walking bass that is passed back and forth between basses and celli, eventually joined by two bassoons playing in unison. The music becomes more and more restless, finally calming down and giving way to the opening walking bass and bassoon theme to end the movement.
The third movement opens with a wild burst of energy and boldly leads to the glorious and heroic final movement without any pause. The three-note theme finally releases the fourth note and a sense of magnificent fulfillment.
It was indeed a grand experience to hear this especially beloved symphony with Vänskä on the podium. His attention to details, his rounding out the sound, revealed sonic treasures not realized before.
The Curtis Symphony Orchestra is a young classical ensemble, uniquely gifted and well-trained, advancing in experience every day. Add a renowned conductor like Vänskä and a world-class pianist like Biss and you have an extraordinary concert experience. Those who braved the rainy, stormy night were richly rewarded.
*Edited/corrected 2/8/20 in response to reader input.