Charlottesville Symphony combines the unusual and the inspired

Two things I really enjoy in a concert: unusual repertoire, and inspired performances. I enjoyed both in the opening concert for the Charlottesville Symphony. York Bowen’s Concerto in C minor for Viola and Orchestra constituted the unusual. Viola concertos are relatively rare, and British composer Bowen is seldom heard on this side of the Atlantic.

Principle violist Ayn Balija was the soloist. To me, it sounded like the opening movement was riddled with slight intonation problems. By the beginning of the second movement, the ensemble seemed to settle in and those issues disappeared.

Bowen was a product of the Second English Renaissance. His 1907 concerto blends late-Romanticism with phrasing and chord progressions inspired by English folksong. Balija played with a rich, warm tone that was well-suited to the material. Her performance made the lyrical middle movement sounded especially beautiful.

At the end of the first half, Balija took center stage to play “Going Home.” It was in memory of fellow symphony musician Rachel Duncan, who recently died. It was music played from the heart and seemed to touch the hearts of the audience.

The second half opened with Song of the Enchanter by Thea Musgrave. More unusual repertoire, but for a purpose. It was written to mark the 125th birthday of Jean Sibelius, and quotes from his second and fifth symphonies. The orchestra’s performance of this wonderfully atmospheric piece was superb, and it provided a natural lead-in to the big work of the evening – Sibelius’ Second Symphony.

This was the inspired performance. In the first movement, Rous carefully drew out the folk elements woven in the music, giving the work a lightness I don’t often hear. Sibelius built the symphony on interconnecting motifs, and Rous’ interpretation helped make those connections clearer.

But it wouldn’t have been entirely successful without the exceptional playing of the ensemble. To cite one example, the exposed lines of the contrabasses in the second movement sound clean and clear. Play imprecisely in the low register and you get a muddy sound. All five players were perfectly in sync.

Same with the brass and the winds. Individual soloists hit their marks, and ensemble playing was tight-knit. All of this, guided by Rous’ conducting, creating an engaging sonic world that swept the audience along to the thundering finale.

Charlottesville Symphony at the University of Virginia
Benjamin Rous, Music Director
Ayn Balija, viola
September 29-30, 2018

York Bowen: Concerto in C minor for Viola and Orchestra, Op. 25
Thea Musgrave: Song of the Enchanter
Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43

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