Orchestra of the Triangle
by Ken Hoover
February 22, 2009, Durham NC: There could arguably be no better selections to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Felix Mendelssohn than those chosen for this homecoming program of the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle, started by Joe Kitchen as the St. Stephen’s Chamber Orchestra in 1982.. Three of Mendelssohn’s most popular and representative works, one from his wondrous teenage output, one from his middle maturity (and what was not mature in Mendelssohn’s entire oeuvre) and his last large orchestral work were performed. The concert was also occasion for celebrating the 50th anniversary (recently) of Joe and Dorothy Kitchen and their immeasurable contributions to the musical life of the Triangle. After the concert a reception was held in appreciation for the ministry of Ben Hutchens as Director of Music at St. Stephen’s. The Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle was conducted by Hutchens, leading this cohesive band in a solid and gratifying program.
The concert began with Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night's Dream: Overture, Op. 21 composed in his 17th year. Many great composers have attempted to capture the Bard of Avon in staves and bars, but none has done it better than the young Mendelssohn. The orchestral palette captures the colors of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy just about perfectly. Though musically a long way off from Impressionism, it is suggestive of a painting by Monet or Renoir or Pissarro. The swirling and plucked violins portray the fairies, with the woodwinds we see Puck’s impishness, the gentle flutes remind us of the lovers, Lysander and Hermia, the lovely melodies call to mind the romances, the woodwinds the foibles and the fun of love. All together it was an amazing, youthful and charming pleasure performed with precision, crisp ensemble, well paced tempos and controlled dynamics under Hutchens’ capable leadership.
The Concerto in E minor, Op. 64 for violin, was Mendelssohn’s last large orchestral work, completed in 1844 and first performed in Leipzig in 1845 with Ferdinand David as the soloist and the composer conducting. Like most of his works, it was well received and has remained one of the standards in the repertoire of all leading violinists to this time. In many respects it was ground-breaking and set the model for the host of the romantic era violin concerti that followed. Hutchins led the orchestra in a balanced and well paced performance, and provided a warm and responsive partnership with the soloist. Nicholas Kitchen, St. Stephen’s own native son, playing the Goldberg Guarneri del Gesu, made the treasured instrument soar with all the melodic richness and romantic lilt of Mendelssohn’s masterpiece. My pleasure was enhanced by finding myself seated down front in the beautiful sanctuary, not much further than six feet from the conductor’s podium. It was fascinating to watch the soloist’s interactions with the orchestra in his breath-taking performance. (Mendelssohn barely gives him a chance to drop his violin from under his chin.) He was clearly reveling in the sound of the instrument, especially in the extraordinarily rich sounds from the open G to pitches barely audible in the upper register, yet so pure and steady as to have a mystical power.
The closing piece after the intermission, the Symphony No. 4in E Minor (Italian), Op. 90, was one of the products Mendelssohn brought back from his tour of Europe from 1829 to 1831 which also included his Scottish Symphony and the orchestral overture "The Hebrides" ("Fingal’s Cave"). It was begun in Italy where Mendelssohn made sketches to capture the color and atmosphere of the country, and was finished in Berlin in 1833. He conducted the first performance in London in March of that year. The first movement is a lively, youthful romp in sonata form. The second movement is conceived as an impression of a religious procession the composer witnessed in Naples. The third movement is a minuet using trumpets and horns in the trio section, and the fourth movement makes use of a couple of Italian dance figurations. The orchestra sparkled throughout, except for a slight French horn flub which was nailed on the repeat.
Congratulations and kudos are deserved all around; to the senior Kitchens, to Nicholas, to St. Stephen’s, to the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle, to Ben Hutchens and to all who participated in any way to put this delightful concert and reception together. The joy that came into the world on February 3, 1809 provides music that is still fresh, vital and needed two hundred years hence.
Note: Nicholas Kitchen will return to St. Stephen’s on March 8 with the Borromeo String Quartet for a performance of the Beethoven late quartets. See our Triangle Calendar for details.