By J. Kevin Butler
On a warm but breezy autumn Sunday afternoon, the Columbus Symphony Orchestra presented “Bon Voyage!” the opening concert of its 2017-18 concert season, “Set a Course For … Danger! Romance! Virtuosity.”
In the shadow of the temporary installation “Conversation Plinth” by IKD on the plaza at the Bartholomew County Public Library, the symphony weathered the many pitfalls of an outdoor performance with an afternoon of music delighting the audience of orchestra faithful, families with children exploring the art installation and an occasional person out for a stroll.
The concert opened with a piece originally composed for piano but transcribed for orchestra, Ignacy Paderewski’s “Melodie” from “Chants du Voyageur.” The piece began quietly with predominantly strings that were sometimes covered by a rather brisk wind that occasionally played havoc with the orchestra members’ music.
The percussion and brass sections came through nicely in their moments, but the woodwinds were often obscured in the outdoor setting. Although the piece was played well, it seemed to lack the energy and vibrancy needed to keep the audience’s attention away from the many outdoor distractions.
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The second number on the concert, “Voyage for String Orchestra” by John Corigliano, also was performed in a quiet, subdued nature, which allowed for several passing cars to draw the listener’s attention away from the music. Concertmaster Phil Palermo once again displayed the fine, expressive technique we have come to expect from him while leading several other fine soloists in a piece that was originally composed for a choral ensemble.
The extremely hushed ending to the piece was lost in the wide expanse of the library plaza setting.
It was in the third piece of the concert that we were introduced to the guest artists for the afternoon, the Sklyark Horn Quartet. The group was formed when the four were students in the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. Their entrance into the concert provided a spark of energy to the CSO and to the concert.
Performing the second and fourth movements of Symphony No. 31 in D “Hornsignal,” composed by Franz Joseph Haydn, the quartet quickly displayed a wonderfully cohesive sound with a delicate but firm articulation. Playing instruments that in their original form were intended for outdoor use, the quartet brought strength and confidence to the CSO’s performance.
Not immune from the outdoor elements, the piece was interrupted by the wind knocking over several music stands behind the orchestra and blowing off the music stand concertmaster Palermo’s sheet music, which was quickly grabbed by a member of the audience who held it in place until the end of the number. Bravo!
The fourth movement ended with a fast, driving section that featured some of the best playing of the afternoon by the orchestra. And it was rewarded by the audience’s most enthusiastic applause.
The Skylark Horn Quartet then performed an additional unlisted piece by Bernard Haydn, a composition professor at IU during the 1980s. In its solo moment, the quartet played brilliantly with a rapid fire articulation and beautiful tone that was prominently displayed through their dynamic range. The audience responded with sustained applause and was left wanting more.
The concert closed with American composer Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2, Op. 30 “Romantic,” originally composed for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Utilizing the full gamut of the CSO’s forces, the piece challenged the orchestra and, overall, the ensemble was up to the challenge.
Again, some moments were lost to the outdoor setting and accompanying noisy distractions, particularly the woodwind soloist and section, and the harp.
The CSO was at its best in the full orchestral moments, playing with strength and musicality on the soaring melodies of the third movement. The ambience of the open plaza did make for some odd balance problems between the lower and higher strings, with some additional intonation and precision issues with the brass and horns.
Despite a momentary rhythmic uncertainty near the end of the piece, the audience nonetheless rewarded the CSO with strong congratulatory applause for an enjoyable afternoon and a beautiful beginning to its 95th season.
J. Kevin Butler is a graduate of the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music and was a high school choral director for more than 20 years. He is currently director of music for the First United Methodist Church of Columbus.