by Laura Genemans
This past Saturday, the Akron Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Christopher Wilkins and the Akron Symphony Chorus under the direction of Maestro Hugh Ferguson Floyd in no uncertain terms established its excellence and value in this area as an exceptional musical force.
Verdi’s La forza del destino: Overture opened the program and established the tonal three notes representing the forces of destiny. Thanks to the excellent pre-concert talk by Maestro Wilkins you knew what to listen for. Without words, the orchestra created pictures with the entrance of the strings followed by the lyrical “gypsy-like” melody from the clarinet and flute. The continual movement between the strings (celli and viola) and winds wove the story taking you to your inevitable destiny – concluding with the low brass. The music carried you due to the way the ensemble followed each other letting the Maestro lead – never releasing that thread of interest and tension.
Puccini’s Edgar was introduced with the “Prelude to Act I” (1892 version) by the orchestra. The theme was airy, fairy – floating and passing from section to section. Next, a lush melody came out in the strings – sober – relaxation – tension. Lovely harps bring in a line…a song without words. This was then followed by Brian Keith Johnson, baritone, singing “Questo amor, vergogna mia.” The audience was enraptured with his handling of this story. Without reading the translation, you could still tell the story of emotion, love and frustration through his depth of passion in his performance. His incredible range, delicate yet intense handling of phrases formed a spell for the audience.
Enter Daniel Doty, tenor, and prepare for “Vedi! le fosche notturne spoglie” from Il Trovatore (otherwise know as the Anvil Chorus) followed by “Di quella pira”. The orchestra enters fiery and playful. The chorus was lusty in its handling of the familiar melody with the orchestra joining in. You could sway with the melody, feeling the vibrations as the hammer met metal. Hand in hand the orchestra and chorus carried the audience to its boisterous conclusion. As Mr. Doty begins “Di quella para” the clear artistic phrases combined with his classic Italian style captured the audience. The men’s chorus, so very clear and passionate, singing “to arms, to arms” completed the spell.
Next, the haunting “Humming Chorus” from Madam Butterfly by Puccini is like a caress – a mother singing her lullaby – extraordinarily difficult to carry, yet the women were up to the challenge. Angela Gwinn then begins “Un bel dÌ vedremo” from Madame Butterfly. Her power soared above the orchestra and then joined it, moving as one.
Brian Johnson then returns for “Va, Tosca!” (Te Deum) from Puccini’s Tosca. The orchestra enters with chimes from afar followed by the tender introduction of the melody in the viola and celli. Powerful and vibrant, Mr. Johnson pushes the audience further and further into the tale – like a dream. The cannon fires, the orchestra rises and falls. The “Te Deum” interposed with the statement “Tosca, you make me forget God!” combined with chimes cascading create a feeling of passion and despair – and is concluded with a low brass flourish with the orchestra.
After intermission, the audience sped to their seats, afraid to miss one note. No joke, I almost spilled my drink in my haste to be back on time! Verdi’s Nabucco overture followed by “Va pensiero” with the chorus justified my haste. The low brass enter, soft, delicate and well balanced, followed by the large fortissimo of the ensemble – only to return to that delicate theme. The music builds and then changes as a lilting melody in the oboe and clarinet peeks out and later we hear a trumpet melody coming through. The mood changes and becomes heavier with a rhythmic bounciness.
Ms. Gwinn resumed the stage and teased the audience with a playful and coquettish rendition of Puccini’s La Boheme “Quando me´n vo´”. Coming from upstage, she swept down the stairs, toyed with the organist (who had a hot flash right there!) and came to the front. Her intentions were clear – I can tell you of my beauty, make you desire me and never make you think of anything else – and sing like a master as well!
She then changes to the lovely, “O mio babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi by Puccini. Lovely, pleading and passionate she shifts the mood with clarity and intensity. We would plead for her if we could.
Don Carlo by Verdi introduces “Spuntato ecco il dÌ d’esultanza” performed by the chorus with the attention to detail we have come to expect and the chorus of the Friars singing “the exultant day has dawned…” “Dio, che nell´alma infondere” performed with Mssrs. Doty and Johnson followed. Bring in the incredible duet – baritone and tenor. Together then apart rising and falling – “liberta” (liberty) – “we will die together!” Powerful, raised to the hilt the audience was with them the entire way. The connection between the soloists and orchestra was amazing – held together by a tenuous breath – yet never a hesitation. Brian Johnson’s stamina was then to be tested with “Per me, guito è il dÌ supremo…lo morrò”. “Death has charms, O Carlo, for someone who dies for you!” Again, he brings the audience with him – stunning in its beauty. Stamina was NOT a problem!
Turandot’s “Nessun dorma”, sung by Daniel Doty, brought the house to its feet with the final “Vincero! I shall win!” Powerful and driving, his classic Italian vocal training was evident.
The final piece was an ensemble from La Traviata: “Libiamo ne´lieti calci” (Brindisi). The musical interplay within the ensemble was perfect. The balance and blend between vocal and orchestra really made you feel the words “Life is just pleasure!”
However – as the audience refused to let them go, they favored us with an encore of Eduardo di Capua’s “O Sole Mio”. The soloists tried to outdo each other teasing and entertaining the audience. The Three Tenors have nothing on these three virtuosos! The orchestra members smiled as the finale came to a conclusion. It was a tremendous effort of cooperation and preparation between the soloists, orchestra and chorus.
Opera, from a novice’s viewpoint can have a negative connotation. The language is foreign, the idea of singing instead of speaking, the difference in vocalization compared to what you hear on the radio all can be off putting to someone who has never experienced it musically at all. I have to admit that when I heard my son (age 18) at the conclusion of the performance say, “So this is what I’ve been missing all these years”, I was thrilled. It takes real joy and passion in a performance for the audience to be carried away and that’s exactly what happened. None of the aforementioned things mattered at all! It was indeed magic.
The difficulty of performing with so many variables of instrumental, ensemble vocals and soloist appear to be a non-issue with these groups. The superior musicianship of all and the leadership therein was demonstrated throughout this performance. From the Maestro to the last seated musician – excellence came through.
The audience, young and old left with song in heart and a wonderful view of our Symphony Chorus and Orchestra.
Laura Genemans holds a Bachelor’s degree in music education from the University of Akron and has taught music in the Akron Public Schools for twenty-eight years.