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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Three Worlds of Music

From the Musical Vault Dept.: During the past few days, we heard from composer Vincent Plush and violinist Stephanie Chase as they prepared for a 1989 Albany Symphony concert, conducted by then-musical director Geoffrey Simon. Here’s my Schenectady Gazette review.


TWO VERY DIFFERENT STYLES of 20th-century composition were displayed at the Albany Symphony Orchestra concert Friday evening when works by Leo Sowerby and Vincent Plush were performed. Both composers faced the challenge of shrugging off the influence of Europe, and did so with contrasting results.

Geoffrey Simon
Sowerby’s “Symphony No. 2" was written in 1927. It’s a three-movement work that hovers uncertainly between Brahms and the noisy dissonance that constituted American music for many composers of that era. The second movement, for instance, features what should be a lovely melody, introduced skillfully by French horn player David Saunders, but the tune takes an unattractive turn every time it threatens to sound pleasant.

The piece would sound very dated were it not for a bluesy quality to some of the writing, proof that Sowerby was moving in the right direction to shake the Germanic influence.

This symphony offers the players an opportunity to stretch out as one tutti after another kicks the forces into high gear. For rambunctious playing, however, Plush’s “Pacifica” can take on all comers.

Plush has challenged himself to assert an Australian identity independant of Great Britain, and “Pacifica” takes us on a musical journey to South America with rhythmic and melodic influences from Chile, Peru, and Mexico.

This work completely avoids any dependance upon melody for its identy, relying instead on a textural continuity. The first of the seven movements supposes the beginning of an ocean voyage in an abstract cacophony that put a full complement of percussion players to work. Each successive movement, while offering little more in the way of traditonal harmony or predictable tunes, contrasted effectively with what went before.

And the performance, again, showed the ASO in as good a shape as it has sounded in a long time. Percussion was, as always, on the money, and the wind players exceeded even the high standards they already have established. There has been considerable improvement in the brass section, and the strings are more and more able to hold their own in such difficult pieces. All of which is a tribute to music director Geoffrey Simon’s ongoing work with the group.

The second half of the program featured violinist Stephanie Chase performing the concerto by Beethoven in a slow, impassioned interpretation that proved her a master not only of the fiddle but also in that tricky relationship with a full orchestra in a well-known work.

She entered in a lovely gown right out of the Busby Berkeley “Shadow Waltz” sequence of a “Gold Diggers” movie. She began the soloist’s opening octaves with a freer tempo than I’m used to hearing, but then dug into the exposition with an astonishingly impressive sense of control. Hers isn’t the cuddly playing of Perlman or the austere Heifetz approach, but the product of a personality that is at once in command of the instrument while serving Beethoven’s requirements.

The slow movement became a centerpiece, then, and not merely a lyrical bridge between first movement and third, and launched her into a finale filled with the fireworks we require from a soloist. Her good rapport with Simon was evidenced throughout; it would be a treat to hear them collaborate on some less traditional fare in the future.

The next pair of ASO concerts take place Feb. 24 and 25. with Richard Mills conducting works by Rossini, Tchaikovsky, Sculthorpe – and his own “Fantastic Pantomimes.”

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 21 January 1989

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