Philharmonic and its pianist earn two standing ovations

In planning programs for the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic, maestro David Bowden inevitably comes up with some of the most interesting combinations of orchestral works.

Saturday evening’s concert at the Columbus North High School auditorium was no exception, featuring two towering masterpieces of orchestral literature and an early twentieth-century piece by one of America’s most important composers of that era, George Whitefield Chadwick.

A copious composer of operas, orchestral music, choral and solo works with orchestra and chamber music including five string quartets, Chadwick received most of his musical tutelage in European musical centers such as Leipzig and Munich, as did many American composers of that era. However, his symphonic works contained undeniable American influences such as jazz, African-American folk songs and Scotch-Irish tunes.

As the opening work on last Saturday’s concert, we were treated to the last of four of his pieces known as Symphonic Sketches, subtitled “A Vagrom Ballad.” Webster tells us that vagrom is a corruptive name for vagrant, and true to its name, Chadwick entertains with shifting melodic ideas and jaunty rhythms that roam throughout the engaging piece.

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The orchestra readily adapted to the playfulness and musical pranks that abounded. Chadwick gave important solo passages to the bass clarinetist, Keith Northover, who played with a warm, sultry sound, making full use of the melodic possibilities of this eclectic instrument.

Next on a program that highlighted two of classical music’s most memorable masterworks, Bowden turned to probably the single most often-played piano concerto, Edward Grieg’s “Piano Concerto in A Minor.” Having early on received brilliant accolades from such musical luminaries as Tchaikovsky, Liszt and Anton Rubenstein, Grieg’s piano concerto has become an international staple of the literature for piano and orchestra.

Its successful execution demands a pianist of consummate technique and deeply emotional melodic inventiveness.

Timothy Stephenson, a brilliant young virtuoso and now a Philharmonic member, filled that bill with distinction. Having already won several major piano competitions he is currently a candidate for the doctor of music degree from Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music. He brought a singing tone from the piano but also included a searing, resounding style when the music needed power and brilliance.

The cadenza of the first movement calls for crashing chords and fast, exciting passage work, all of which Stephenson executed with aplomb.

If there is anything to criticize, it would be some stray, wrong notes in more than a few chords. However, the overall impression that this outstanding pianistic talent made makes me want to hear more from his storehouse of keen musical ability.

After intermission, the spotlight turned to the Philharmonic itself, which gave us a penetrating account of Brahms’ Second Symphony. Sometimes it takes a lifetime for a piece of music to enter the mainstream of classical music and other times its premiere establishes it as a sure favorite.

Brahms was fortunate to compose two symphonies that had immediate, enthusiastic responses from both critics and the general public. Replete with gorgeous melodies and alternating between moods tender and exuberant, Brahms maintains a “sunny disposition” throughout this gargantuan work.

The solo passage work of principal hornist Scott Holben, principal oboist Nancy Argersinger, and principal flutist Kathy Dell, and principal trumpet Eddie Ludema added distinction and high quality to an already outstanding orchestral presentation. Bowden maintained excellent tempos without feeling rushed at any time, and the sonority and technical prowess of the Philharmonic have never been more in evidence.

Under the inspired leadership of its conductor, the Philharmonic showed its distinction as a major symphony orchestra of the state of Indiana. A comfortable crowd gave the performers two standing ovations, which they well deserved.

I would continue to hope, however, that a concert of this A1 quality would attract a standing-room only audience.

Charles Webb is dean emeritus of Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University in Bloomington. Send comments to [email protected].