Charlottesville Symphony dazzles with contemporary work

The Charlottesville Symphony that opened its 2019-20 season was not the same ensemble as last year’s. About a third of the musicians were new to the orchestra, including two new principal players. Although new, the symphony seemed to retain the weaknesses and strengths of its former self.

The first work of the evening, Mozart’s Symphony No. 32 showed the weakness. The string section (as it did last year) seemed to take a while to settle into the music.  Intonation sounded a little wobbly.  The violins were also imprecise in their unison playing. Within a few minutes, though, those issues went away as the string sound came together.

Albert Kim, pianist

Brahm’s Piano Concerto No. 2 was the second half of the program. Pianist Albert Kim didn’t deliver a note-perfect performance (not that important). But he did provide some insight into the work with his interpretation (very important).

Kim played with a certain amount of reserve. The big passages were big, and the lyric passages heartfelt, but never overplayed emotionally. Rather than soloist + accompanying ensemble, the dynamic seemed to be more of an equal partnership. And it was one that worked well.

Kudos to principal horn player Kay Ambrose for some exceptional solo work. She played the theme that opens the concerto in pure, beautiful tones that set the stage for all the wonderful music-making that was to come.

The audience rewarded Albert Kim, Benjamin Rous, and the orchestra with a standing ovation. I think I was the only one, though, who stood to applaud at the end of the first half.

It was for a work by Sirian-American composer Kareem Roustrom. As he’s done before, Maestro Rous prepared the audience with a brief but in-depth presentation. He demonstrated the complex rhythm of the work, had excerpts from a Skype interview with Roustrom, and even illustrated key concepts by having the orchestra play short excerpts.

“Ramal” is a monster to play. The work has a 7/8-5/8-7/8-8/8 rhythmic structure that’s insistent and constant. And, if you don’t stay focused, it’s a beat that’s easy to lose and almost impossible to recover. The work itself is mostly tonal, with demanding solos and interplay between sections that require absolute precision.

The strength of last year’s symphony was the ability to play difficult music with accuracy and expression. This ensemble retained that strength. It sounded as if the orchestra had internalized the rhythm, letting them concentrate on other aspects of the music. “Ramal” had a vibrancy to it with a conflicted emotional subtext coloring the music in subtle ways.

It was an amazing performance. Not just an amazing performance of a community orchestra, but an amazing performance by any orchestra. Everyone –especially the principals — played at the top of their game. It’s the Charlottesville Symphony’s strength. And that’s what got me out of my seat.

Charlottesville Symphony at the University of Virginia
Benjamin Rous, Music Director
Albert Kim, piano
September 28-29, 2019

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony No. 32 in G major, K.318
Kareem Roustrom: Ramal
Johannes Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 83

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