Columbus Symphony brings life to Death and Transfiguration

On a cool, dreary Sunday afternoon, a small but enthusiastic audience eagerly awaited the entrance of maestro Josh Aerie to begin the fourth concert of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra’s “The Journey Begins” season.

From the opening downbeat to the echoes of the final notes of the title piece of the concert, Death and Transfiguration, Op. 24 by Richard Strauss, the audience was treated to a wide range of musical emotions and styles performed by an orchestra challenged by its conductor to reach into the depths of its soul to portray.

The concert began with a piece rarely heard today, Spring Song, Op.16, by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. In the nationalistic style of the period, the piece heralds the arrival of spring and was a favorite of the composer to conduct.

The power of the orchestra’s string section was particularly evident in this opening selection with soaring melodies and full, rich sonorities.

In the large Judson Erne Auditorium, there were moments where the woodwinds and percussion chimes were somewhat lost in the total orchestral sound, but the effective use of contrasting soft and loud dynamics brought the piece to a satisfying musical conclusion.

One of the afternoon’s highlights was the CSO’s performance of the “Farewell” Symphony No. 45 in F-sharp minor, by Joseph Haydn. The symphony played with great command of the repertoire and a confidence and assurance that made the piece come to life for the audience.

Both the woodwinds and brass performed admirably in this selection, accented by crisp and precise articulation in the strings.

As noted by conductor Aerie in his program notes and as a surprise for the audience in his introductory remarks, the piece ended with members of the orchestra — including the conductor himself — leaving the stage with only concertmaster Phil Palermo and principal Laura Andrews remaining to play a sweet but brief duet.

With sustained applause from the delighted audience, the entire orchestra returned to the stage for a well-deserved bow.

Continuing in this lighter vein, the orchestra then performed “To a Wild Rose” from Ten Woodland Sketches, Op. 51, by Edward MacDowell and arranged by well-known operetta composer Victor Herbert.

With its common song structure, this short piece was played with great tenderness and sweetness.

Out of this light-hearted moment, the orchestra changed mood to attack the main musical piece of the afternoon, Death and Transfiguration, Op. 24.

This piece is of the symphonic or tone poem genre — a large orchestral piece that follows a narrative or reflects particular images, characters, moods or events. Unlike other symphonic poems composed by Strauss, in this work he wrote the music first then asked poet Alexander Ritter to create a narrative.

Hence, the story is of an artist on his deathbed attempting to come to terms with his own mortality and embracing perfection of heaven.

This piece is recognized by many as one of the more challenging in the orchestral repertoire, which conductor Aerie explained in his remarks. Here, the Columbus Symphony Orchestra was up to the challenge.

Adeptly following the precise conducting of Aerie, the orchestra displayed a variety of musical timbres and colors vividly portraying a man fighting death until ultimately he gives up his hold on life and embraces his deliverance from the world.

Playing brilliantly at times, the orchestra moved through the emotional challenges of the piece with spirit and technical virtuosity.

The violins soared, the harp provided heavenly accents and the full orchestra built an incredible crescendo. As the last notes of the piece resounded through the hall, the audience rose to its feet in appreciation for a challenge well met.

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.