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Orchestral Music Review

Durham Symphony Guest Warms up Audience

November 4, 2007 - Durham, NC:

The Durham Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Maestro Alan Neilson, performed a fundraiser concert for the Center for Child and Family Health at the Carolina Theatre Sunday at 5:30 p.m. A reception for VIPs followed.

After an audience participation performance of "The Star Spangled Banner," which was listed in the program, the concert began with Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 in B-flat. It was composed in 1816 for an amateur orchestra comprised of musical officials, merchants, and professionals, with a smattering of professional musicians to provide the leaven — not unlike the group on stage today. This symphony owes much to the inspiration of Mozart and is thoroughly classical in its construction. The instrumentation, sans clarinets, trumpets or drums, was determined by what was available to the orchestra in Liechtental. The themes are straightforward and mostly bright and cheerful. The second movement Andante and the third movement Meneutto are among Schubert’s most memorable melodies. The orchestra performed with confidence, clarity and precision under the leadership of Neilson. The audience however seemed unimpressed, offering only courteous and brief applause.

It took the appearance and performance of guest artist, soprano Shana Blake Hill, to warm the audience up a bit. Her stage presence and her artistry were enough as she breezed, seemingly without effort, through the bel canto warhorse “Casta Diva,” from Bellini’s Norma. Her rich tone, vocal control, and dramatic interpretation commanded attention and appreciation. Of special note were her pure high notes and perfect cadences. The applause was warm and sustained.

Hill has performed widely, mostly on the West Coast, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Pacific Symphony, Berkley Symphony, and a number of opera companies; she recently debuted Bright Sheng’s “The Phoenix” with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Charles Dutoit. She has been recognized as “an intense young soprano..., a standout” by the Los Angeles Times.

After intermission, the concert resumed with Mozart’s bravura aria “Marten aller Arten” from The Abduction from the Seraglio. It and each of her following solos were given relaxed and charming vocal introductions by the singer. Again, Hill’s technical vocal skill was impressive. Soft controlled trills, arpeggios up and down the scale, challenging ornamentation, and emotional depth were equally conveyed in this rendition.

The orchestra next performed two selections by Richard Wagner. The “Procession of the Masters”, a snippet from the third act of Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg, was first. It merely whetted the appetite of this fan of the transcendent music of the flawed human being for the great hymn in honor of Hans Sachs, the Prize Song, the glorious quintet, and the triumphant paean to German and all art that ends the opera. Alas, we had to be satisfied with the overture to Wagner’s first really successful (and longest) opera, Rienzi. The long flowing melodies and dramatic use of instrumental choirs, especially the brass, make this overture a concert favorite. The opera is seldom performed and has not yet been deemed acceptable to the composer’s wacky heirs who run the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, Germany. It was the orchestra’s weakest performance on this concert. Some brasses were not in balance dynamically, there were a few fluffed notes and the overall flow of the rich heroic themes fell just a little short of expected realization.

The program continued with “Ombra mai fu” from Handel’s Xerxes. This gorgeous melody, often referred to as the “Largo” from Xerxes and frequently sung to religious text is actually a song in appreciation for the shade of a tree. Stately and magnificent, it requires tonal and dynamic challenges for any voice. Hill’s crescendos rising from nothing to just the right place and diminuendos fading back to nothing sent chills up the back of my neck.

The best was saved for last. Heitor Villa-Lobos’ "Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5" was written expressly for the great Brazilian soprano Bidú Sãyao. It was one of nine pieces he wrote under the same title as tributes to J.S. Bach in the mode of his Brazilian heritage. It is scored for eight cellos and voice; the cellos plucked and bowed emulate the sound of the Spanish guitar, and the voice is mostly written as an “ah” or a hum except for the middle poem. The melody is otherworldly and ethereal and Hill seemed totally at one with it. This was truly a special treat, an awesome performance with the cellos playing inspired by the music and the singing.

Hill returned to the stage for an encore dedicated to the children served by the Center for Child and Family Health. She sat casually on a stool and sang a cappella a lullaby we all treasure: “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” What a charmed conclusion to a fine evening of music!