Symphony review: Musicians, conductor rise to challenging score
By Timothy Tuller
December 2, 2017
The Jacksonville Symphony’s “German Giants” program brings three giants of the German orchestral repertoire to the stage with an unapologetic roar and the boldness of programming and performance that has been a hallmark of this season.
No composer’s name invokes trepidation in the minds of even the most ardent music lovers as that of Arnold Schoenberg. As the most well-known proponent of the “twelve-tone” school of composition, his music is often judged impenetrable in the extreme. A contemporary of Freud, Schoenberg composed in an era on the edge of the First World War, and his “Five Pieces for Orchestra” captures that time’s tension and uncertainty of anticipated violence. The orchestra handled the complex score with balance and nuance, evoking a disturbing and unsettling dreamscape of unresolved anxiety, terror and psychosis. Conceptually dense as it is, the score is spare and calls for extreme subtlety from conductor and performers, and the symphony proved up to the task. There were moments ranging from intimate chamber music to violent outbursts, often only measures apart.
“Five Pieces for Orchestra” is by no means pretty or easy listening, but it has true artistic voice underneath the prickly surface. This music is hard going for most anybody, but there is legitimate art here and kudos to the leadership of the symphony for programming such a bold piece. Schoenberg’s work reminds us that art isn’t only about charming and pleasing entertainment, but sometimes should challenge and even offend. Dissonant as it is, this work can take the listener places that no sweeping romantic composition can, if they are but willing to go with an open mind.
Swinging about as far as possible in the extremes of the orchestral canon, Felix Mendelssohn’s beloved Violin Concerto brought back the aforementioned charm and grace. Soloist Tai Murray is a force whose range and color of tone seems boundless. With commanding presence and infectious confidence, her intonation never strayed, even in passages of fastest filigree. The woodwind section was a standout of the evening, handling close dialogue with the soloist with an elfin lightness and precision. The jaunty final movement’s tightness and the energy of soloist with orchestra rendered it physically impossible for me to not tap my feet.
As I have attended concerts conducted by Courtney Lewis, one thing has become especially clear: He is an uncommonly deft concerto accompanist. Conductor and orchestra supported the soloist with such balance and communication that I almost forgot they were there. I defy any conductor anywhere to handle the orchestral re-entry after the cadenza in the first movement more ably.
Concluding this most generous repast was one of the very greatest pillars of western art music, Beethoven’s “Eroica.” This bespoke symphony, arguably the most influential ever written, brought the evening to a marvelous close. The strings really shined; in an impressive feat of endurance and focus, their intonation never faltered. Courtney clearly loves the piece, conducting by memory with the familiar ease of an old friend delighted in a reunion.
Giant in scope, giant in ambition of programming, giant in execution, “German Giants” challenges and charms.
Timothy Tuller is canon for music at Saint John’s Cathedral in Jacksonville.