The Columbus Indiana Philharmonic closed its 2016-17 auditorium season on a high note with its performance Saturday night. An ambitious program for any symphony orchestra, and under the superb leadership of music director David Bowden, the large and enthusiastic audience at Judson Erne Auditorium heard a phenomenal soloist and each section of the ensemble represented in soloistic fashion.
Maestro Bowden chose a 1986 work of contemporary composer John Adams, “Short Ride in a Fast Machine,” to begin the evening. Adams is numbered among a group of 20th-century American composers not interested in continuing the gigantic, effulgent sounds of Wagner and Strauss but instead embracing short, simple repetitive germs of music based primarily on repeated mechanical rhythms with little or no interest in traditional melodic or harmonic idioms.
The result is a stunning piece that begins with a simple wood-block incessant rhythm and in about four minutes builds to an extremely effective crashing climax. The orchestra played with great precision and treated the audience to a breath-taking ride.
Before intermission Elliot Wuu, the remarkable 17-year-old pianist, gave a brilliant performance of Camille Saint-Saens’ Piano Concerto in G Minor. Wuu played the opening cadenza with grandeur, solemnity and with a golden sound that the piece demands. Sixteenth-note melodic lines were phrased beautifully with a depth of tone and musical understanding that were a pleasure to hear.
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The second movement, marked allegro scherzando, demonstrated Wuu’s glistening technique with clean, staccato-like flourishes. When called upon to accompany, the orchestra played its part with grace and expressivity, responding to every motion of its outstanding conductor.
The rollicking last movement was a tour-de-force for both soloist and orchestra. Setting a demanding tempo, they played with clarity and excitement, notwithstanding a few block chords that were not always together between soloist and orchestra. The audience responded with an immediate standing ovation, and Wu generously played the C-minor “Revolutionary” Etude of Frederic Chopin. The tempo that he chose was so incredibly fast that some of the musical content was lost.
However, Wuu is an unbelievable talent who will undoubtedly stun audiences all over the world with his powerful musical gifts.
If there can be such a thing as autobiographical music, then the symphonies of Gustave Mahler rate highly on that scale. The composer himself declared, “I have written into them all my experience and all my suffering.” Following intermission, the Columbus Philharmonic gave a stirring and passionate account of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. The artistic world can thank Leonard Bernstein for his persistence in performing and recording all of the Mahler 9 symphonies, much as we are indebted to Felix Mendelssohn for his re-discovery and insistent promotion of major Johann Sebastian Bach compositions.
Mahler’s interest in manifestations of nature feature prominently in his first symphony. We see in the opening movement the composer’s incredible use of color, which is evident in all the movements. Throughout this giant score, the masterful playing of individual orchestral sections was thrilling to hear. In the second movement, the French horns are required to play in the stratosphere—and without a missed note. This could be said of all sections, with special mention of principal trumpet Eddie Ludema in triumphing over Mahler’s requirement to surmount explosive measures of trumpets exceeding the top register.
Normally, we do not hear the string bass as a solo instrument. However, Mahler gives the opening of the third movement to the principal bass, and Kaelan Decman played it with a beautiful sound and flawless intonation — a sterling accomplishment.
Mahler’s use of folk melodies is fascinating, and the way that he weaves them into major orchestral sections is continually interesting. This symphony embodies the full range of emotion for the soul of man, and we experience in the last movement a divine section of pastoral purity developing finally into a climax that would tax the resources of any orchestral ensemble in the world.
The probing depth of the Philharmonic’s capabilities revealed conquering the most challenging circumstances. Rousing plaudits to every single person who gave us such a masterful rendition of one of the great artistic triumphs of the 20th century. I congratulate maestro Bowden for his willingness to tackle some of classical music’s most arduous compositions and bring them to such a joyful and magnificent conclusion.